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Crime writing


A special report from the Masterclasses at the London Book Fair, March 2004

The 2004 Masterclasses at the London Book Fair were sponsored by the Daily Mail and organised with great flair by English PENSupported by eminent writers, this is the English branch of International Pen, which has centres in nearly 100 countries. It fights for freedom of expression and against political censorship. It campaigns for writers harassed, imprisoned and sometimes murdered for their views. They repeated a familiar formula, which nonetheless worked well, of two writers presenting and discussing their work, with a chair to coordinate the session.

Masterclass on Crime writing

An outstandingly lively and enjoyable Masterclass on crime writing was chaired by Peter Gutteridge, the crime fiction critic of the London Observer. The panellists were Minette Walters, the bestselling crime writer, and Mark Billingham, who has recently published his first crime novel.

Mark Billingham defended the crime novel, saying that 'crime fiction can do everything a literary novel can do and more' and Minette Walters thought that you needed to draw a distinction between whether you were a 'crime thriller or psychlogical thriller writer'.

The writers started by describing their own approach to writing. Minette described how her characters tended to write the story themselves, because they're only able to behave in a certain way. She said: 'the story has to be written through the characters, it's no good plotting in advance', but that she kept everything in her head, including the story.

Mark thought it was all in the dialogue and mentioned admiringly how Elmore Leonard nails a character in just two sentences. He emphasised (as did the Screenwriting Masterclass authors) the importance of keeping going on the writing, rather than stopping and editing it, but said that ultimately for every book he writes he probably tears up 30/40,000 words. Minette echoed this later, urging everyone to: 'just keep writing, at least until you've got about half-way.'

Some writers spend a huge amount of time outlining the story before they start writing. Jeffrey Deaver, for example, spends nine months writing an outline, but only three months writing the book itself. John Connelly also produces a 50,000 word outline before going back and expanding it into the book. At the other extreme, Stephen King writes the complete first draft before he looks back at what he's done.

Mark said he had the beginning and end in his mind before starting writing, but didn't know how he was going to get from one to the other. He felt that 'We don't know when we're halfway through that we are halfway through.' He tends to have five or six people who could have committed the murder, but finds that subconsciously he knew who it was and had just put red herrings in to confuse his readers.

Minette said: 'Writing the way I do, the suspense is there for me too. I do find it exciting. I love writing.'

The audience was then invited to try its hand at extending six possible beginnings into first paragraphs, with astonishingly good results. The starting-points were things like ‘The door was half-open…’ and ‘The body lay in the snow…’ Most of the contributions, which were read out from the floor or by the panellists, were really good, with some of them exceptionally imaginative as well.

There were some useful further bits of advice. Minette urged the audience: 'Don't go into writing if you're not prepared to work hard.' She also suggested that you shouldn't stop the writing to do research. 'Write the story, then do the research afterwards, when you know where the gaps are.'

Mark agreed that: 'Research can be a substitute for writing.'

This concluded a very good-humoured and positive session, with good feedback from an enthusiastic and competent bunch of writers.

See also: report on the London Book Fair Screenwriting Masterclass.

To contact English PEN