Projects,  Writing

An editor's take on crime fiction

chestertonwordle by bfistermn via Photopin/Flickr
chestertonwordle by bfistermn via Photopin/Flickr

So I went to Crimescene WA today to talk about editing crime fiction with Satima Flavell. I even met Marianne Delacourt (so exciting!).

So here is a rundown of what you should and shouldn’t do with crime fiction from an editor’s point of view. Our thanks to all those who came and asked questions – please keep us posted on how your writing is going.

Q: What does an editor look for in a crime fiction story?

A: The story has to be intriguing, puzzling, not too easy to solve and not too hard either and it has to logically work. That in a nut shell is it. As a writer with crime fiction you are selling a puzzle wrapped up in a story. The A plot is the mystery or the crime and that is key above everything else.

Q: How would you edit a crime fiction novel? 

A: Much the same as I would edit any other type of novel. I would look at the structure first because if you crafting a puzzle into the storyline then you need to watch out for plotholes and other such discrepancies. I would look at your characters and whether they were compelling. I would then copy edit it for style and consistency.

Q: Ok, how do I make my characters compelling? 

A: Make them real. DON’T make them stereotypes or archetypes. DON’T give the protagonist/detective some sort of trait/condition no one else has as a means of explaining why they can solve crimes and others cannot. Create backstories/biographies for your characters so you know why they are the way they are when your story first starts and then NEVER put the backstories in. DON’T try to make them stand out in any way unnecessarily.  They don’t need to – the story is about them already.

Generally I would stress this a lot more because characters create the plot. People cause drama – drama does not generally just fall from the sky. But here you have to alter that slightly as the demands of the genre state that while characters create the plot, the plot has to be about them solving whatever you have thrown at them as a mystery. So you have to make it something that they can do and can take on as the characters that they are.

Q: So, I want to use an unknown or rare means of killing someone but I can’t find/think of one that hasn’t been used?

A: Hoo boy. Look, the point of the crime fiction story is the puzzle. And the puzzle is about who and why most of the time and maybe how but never usually the what was used to kill someone with. So you can spend most of the book trying to figure out motives and suspects and how any of the said suspects could have committed said crime but you already know what the crime was and the method used.

Because if you use an unknown method then you have to come up with some way of ensuring that your protagonist also knows of said unknown method because by the end of the book, he or she needs to be able to solve it. And if you have untraceable poisons etc then how the hell are you even going to get to the point where your detective can figure out who did it or why?

And creating or using such a method sells your reader short too. They want a puzzle they can solve and one that is challenging. Not one where there is a deus ex machina in the form of the author saying finally at the end somehow “It’s this whole new method of killing someone that I invented that you the reader could not have known about and that I have passed to my detective via osmosis so he can solve it and we are done.”

Does that sound satisfactory? Not to me. And think about probability as well. You are more likely to have murders committed by shooting, stabbing and poisoning than by say some weird electroshock, long distance strangulation aka the Star Wars Force Choke Hold, arrows tipped with rare curare poison from the Amazon and so on… Seriously, avoid the cliches like the plague.

Q: So I have this cop right and he is on his beat when he finds a dead body and he starts trying to…

A: I am going to stop you right there. If there are law enforcement agencies in your story and one assumes there will be, then you need to do your research. Generally, a cop who finds a corpse on patrol, reports it and then goes home and gets leave (hopefully) for therapy because he is on street patrol duty not on the crime squad. Then the crime squad or division or whatever fancy name they give themselves, who are a) used to seeing dead bodies and b) equipped to deal with them, show up and cordon the place off and they generally investigate the crime. And if it veers off into something like fraud or espionage, they have to hand it over to that division or wait for someone to decide if there is a coordinated investigation and who is heading it if there is.

So if there are law enforcement agencies in your story then whether your protagonist is part of them or not you need to do some research. You need to research what the procedures are for the agencies, what the hierarchy is, who handles what and you need to research things like what blood splatters look like, what kind of firearms are legally available in the area and all that sort of thing.

There is a ton of things to research. Flesh out the basic idea of what your story is and you will know what details you need to go look up. And this is a genre where the plotline hangs on tiny details. You cannot afford to get them wrong.

Q: So I want to use the first person narrative where it’s all from the detective’s point of view.

A: That’s fine if the story works out like that. So as long as your story doesn’t suddenly require you to switch to another person’s point of view for part of the action then go to town. Just don’t go to ’30s LA Raymond Chandler’s Maltese Falcon style. Because it’s been done. And now it’s a cliche.

Q: I have this female character – 

A: Is she long legged, pencil skirt wearing and a whole lot of trouble? Is she a bad girl with a heart of gold? Is she a femme fatale?

Q: Um, no? 

A: Good. Because if she is any of those or even forbid, a damsel in distress, then you have a stereotype or archetype and I do not recommend that at all. You are a better writer than that.

If I had to edit your crime fiction novel, I would do a structure/plot edit first and then a copy edit and this is what I would look for because I’d want you to make your novel actually work well as a piece of writing:

1) When writing crime fiction you have to remember that you are constructing a story that has to then be deconstructed by your detective/protagonist figure but it has to be something that isn’t obvious as to the method of deconstruction to anyone until it is eventually explained. So not only are you trying to create something that people can get away with you are also creating the process by which the detective is breaking the story down to get at the real criminal. If you give it away too easily, if it’s all set to crumble down, if the detective is never going to catch a break, I will flag this.

2) You need to do your research – whatever scientific or unscientific methods are used, whatever universe, real or alternate that the story is set in – the reader has to be able to believe that the underlying logic of the story’s universe works in order to suspend their disbelief adequately. And in a crime fic you never know what is a clue as the reader so you’re looking at everything. You need to do the research – you’re constructing this plot so you need to know all your characters’ alibis and locations and that sort of thing as well. All their potential motives. All their assumptions about each other. I will keep tabs on anything that does not compute such as AK47s in the 1800s for example. Ditto on the slang. There are no “dolls” outside of NYC/LA in the 20s unless you have a transplanted American.

3) Try to stay away from making your detective/protagonist somewhat weird/left of center/kooky in order to explain why they can solve the crime and no one else can. That to me seems lazy. Ordinary people see the world in a variety of different ways – I’d rather your detective be someone I can believe is the kind of person that notices certain things because of an interest rather than have it be explained away by a “condition”. Protagonists I have read of that are not the usual sort include: Flavia – ten year old girl interested in chemistry in the ’60s; a siamese cat and his owner in north New England; an accountant turned baker living in Melbourne; and a transplanted Texan WWII nurse who solves mysteries while writing about the jungle life in Africa.

People often try to use journalists/archaeologists/cops as their detectives because this then goes a long way to explaining why a) they have an interest in crime b) why they get the opportunity to be involved in it and c) where they get the ability to solve crimes others can’t. I think you can use these occupations definitely but I think once you stop using them as a kind of shorthand to explain these three things, then you have to explain it to the reader yourself and that forces you to make your writing more interesting. The reader needs to relate to your main character. And they don’t have to be perfect either. Don’t make them.

4) No stereotypes please – no Tom Clancyesque ones like “Oh, it’s the 70’s so Russians are the bad guys, oh wait it’s the 80s so it’s the Chinese/Japanese, oh now we are in the 90s so it’s the Arabs.” I think you have a responsibility to your readers not to perpetuate stereotypes so don’t automatically make certain ethnic groups the villains of the piece.

5) Don’t make the butler do it unless he actually managed to do it, in between answering doors and bossing all those below stairs. And unless he had a damn good motive. It’s a cliche for a reason.

6) Just because there is one young girl and one young guy, it doesn’t follow that they will get together as part of the subplot/B plot. If you’re setting your story in the ’20s in England you may have a meddling aunt or two that may wish for it, but it does not follow that they have to do so.

Satima had some really good advice as well:

1) Start the story with the precipitating incident that kickstarts the plotline of the story. The backstory of the main character’s background can be filled in later.

2) Remember to ask what the character wants, what’s stopping them from getting it, how they deal with being opposed and how they go after what they want.

3) Don’t head hop. Stick to close third in terms of point of view.

4) Read widely and read critically. Study other people’s writing.

5) Most stories are structured in three acts. Act one sets things up. In Act two things happen and in Act three everything is resolved. Try to remember this.

If you have any more questions about crime fiction, you can always ask me or Satima. Feel free. And make plans to come to CrimesceneWA 2014.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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