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.
Images: imdb [dot] com, flickr [dot] com
I love the tips in this post. I’m not a crime novel writer – more of an aspiring dystopian society fiction writer, but my book’s gonna have thrills and twists in it too. Your advice has already helped me in developing one of my characters!
You were brave to make your leading lady a lesbian in your book. Now I’ve got to go pick up a copy and read it. I’ll let you know how accurate you are. 😉
Thanks, Peyton! Glad to be of help. And please let me know what you think about Alex Stone. Good luck with your writing.
This post should be required reading at Mystery University. I’m a full-time non-fiction ghostwriter who relaxes off-duty by writing crime fiction but I haven’t found my particular crime sub-genre yet, so this article was helpful. It got me thinking and triggered a few ideas I now plan to follow up on.
Memorable characters and crime thriller novels that I like? Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer”, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series and — to move slightly out of the genre — Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache.
And now I’m delighted I’ve found your Matt Cahill. He could really give Mickey Haller a run for his money.
Joel, thanks for sharing your experiences and insights. Great blog, and I will be checking out the posts regularly.
Thanks, Marya. Glad you found it helpful. Matt Cahill is one of a kind, I’ll give you that. Thanks for reaching out.
I am not a writer, by any stretch of the imagination, but I really enjoyed this post 🙂
Loved the “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.” Haha brilliant 🙂
Thanks, Rosemary! Glad you enjoyed the post. And, you never know, maybe there’s a writer lurking somewhere inside you!
“Off with their heads.” Great advice on the days I want to stand at the guillotine. I find I really have to be in a mood to leave so much blood on my desk. The blood belongs in the book.
I look forward to your opinion of Sonoma Knight: The Goat-Ripper Case. A budding P.I. comes home to his dairy to heal, fall in love, make cheese, and stop a perverted wine adulterer making obscene profits. Wine & cheese & murder…due mid-June.
It honors most of your rules and bends a few. A FREE e-copy for you when you’re inclined. My favorite reviewer comment: “You do every Marine proud.” Thanks for the tips. More please.
Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Peter. Yes, blood does belong in the book. But Hemingway did say, “There’s nothing to writing. You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”
Nice reviewer comment. I don’t see a website link with your comment. Do you have one to share?
Again, thank you for stopping by. I hope you enjoy all of my posts.
Great post! I’m halfway through my first detective novel. I’ve followed all your advice.
Any tips on getting published?
Tips on getting published…answering that in the space allowed in this comment section would be impossible, I’m afraid. I will say that I’ve had experience with both traditional publishing and indie publishing and I think (for me, at least) indie publishing is the way to go. You don’t have to worry about “getting published” because it’s all up to you. This also means you have to handle all the marketing and many other aspects of the process yourself, but you have total control, which is good. I have a team of experts that I put together to help me do everything that’s required in the complex process of publishing and selling books.
Really, an excellent article that I enjoyed a lot.
My “crime novel” isn’t any of the genre you listed but that’s because my character is a Militia Investigator, in a medieval-contemporary fantasy world (medieval type of government, contemporary level of technology reached through magic) so my DNA’s analyst use an aura-revelator and crystallize the pattern (for example) even so, for this story to hold on, I have “bound” the magic to be able to do, or not to do some few things. (eg. why wasn’t the corpse brought in time to the temple where it can be resurrected if death occurred in 24 past hours).
I am subject to the exact sames rules, obligations and “sub-genre” choices as what you describe, so your article helped me to find my way… I’m still hesitating between hard-boiled or cozy through. It’s still difficult to me to write descriptive scenes of violence, so I’m thinking of cozy rather than forcing myself.
Well, the “every word counts” is most likely what I’ll hard-write on my brain as really, I love writing dialog, like long interview of suspect, and I don’t know how long is an acceptable interview, and what should be narrated for now…
So really, I’m grateful for your article, it pun down the problems I had and on which I couldn’t put a name. Although I’m french, I plan on writing my novel in English, and there was hints of vocabulary in you article that were useful to me too !
Thank you so much again!
Late thanks for an inspiring article! I’m currently in the process of writing a somewhat unique crime drama where a curious college student commits several complicated victimless crimes (he returns what he stole) just to see if they could be done. But someone follows his methods and commits a less-freindly crime, in which someone dies. He now has to catch the new criminal before he kills again using our hero’s signature. No eta on the story as of yet.