it to the shelves – hence the excerpts from reviews, the praise from fellow novelists, and the plethora of cover stickers proclaiming ‘The new so-and-so’ or ‘As good as so-and-so, or your money back.’ Hence, too, the ‘shout lines’ on fronts and backs of book jackets. Here are a few examples from books which have been published in the last 10 years: >> He doesn’t want you alive, he doesn’t want you dead. He wants you somewhere in between. Mark Billingham, Sleepyhead, 2001
>> A victim without a face. A killer without a heart. A man in search of absolution. Caro Ramsay, Absolution, 2007 >> She knows the difference between good and bad. She’s just not sure which she prefers… Denise Mina, Still Midnight, 2009
In case you are wondering why I’m telling you all this – after all it is, in theory at least, the publisher’s job – it’s because it is a very useful exercise for the writer. Books are big, sprawly things, and when you begin to think of a new story and how it might work, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae and lose touch with the bigger picture. I find that, when I am starting a new book, it’s a great help to write, in the first instance, a cover ‘blurb’ for it, because it focuses my mind on what I want to achieve and how I wish the characters to develop.
The blurb, incidentally, is the partial plot summary that goes on the back cover or the jacket flap. A recent example, from Patrick Lennon’s latest novel, Cut Out, begins as follows:
Afghanistan. Every year, an assignment of thousands of British personnel. Some of them bring back more than memories.
TV producer Dan Simmons wants to film it all. He finds a regiment about to be deployed to the Afghan war on a radical anti-heroin operation. He gets himself embedded. He shoots
some film. Then he shoots himself.
Blurbs are usually around 200 words long. Take a look at a few crime novels to give yourself the feel of how it’s done, then go back to your work-in-progress or rough sketch of themes and plot, and try and condense it in this way. You must not, of course, give away the ending, but you must make the book sound as intriguing and exciting as possible, so that a potential reader will be gasping to know more. When you have completed this to your satisfaction, try to shrink it down to one or two sentences, for a ‘shout line.’
There are two kinds of writers. The first type will start with an idea, or a ‘what if?’ situation, and go where the story takes her. The second type will write an expanded synopsis, with everything planned out beforehand. One way isn’t better than the other – it is simply a matter of what suits the individual. However, I think that the blurb exercise is good for both sorts of writer, as it helps to sharpen us up and streamline the process. Don’t think of it as a template which must be followed at all costs – if you find that your book isn’t going to work in the way that your blurb suggests, revise the blurb. Writing, even for the experienced practitioner, is about trial and error, and most importantly – and this can’t be said often enough – it’s about re-writing. Ask any published author, and he or she will tell you (with a groan), that this is all too true. This, incidentally, is especially important for the author of crime fiction, who, if she changes her plot, or the identity of the murderer, halfway through, must go back through the manuscript, changing any plot point or nuance that is in direct and implausible conflict with the book’s new direction (unless it is a red herring, of course).
Be broad-minded: Whether your taste is for hard-boiled crime or for something more ‘cosy,’ it is always a good idea for a potential crime novelist to read right across the genre, as the best examples of each type will have something to teach you (and the worst will show you the pitfalls to be avoided).
LAURA WILSON is the author of eight psychological crime novels, including Stratton’s War (Orion, 2008), winner of the Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Novel, and The Lover (Orion, 2004), winner of the Prix du Polar Européen.
[Writing crime fiction] you are working in a form which requires a great deal of discipline from the writer, where every word must be made to count.
Suggested Reading: 10 Very Different Crime Novels
> Megan Abbott, Die A Little (Pocket Books, 2008) > Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage (HarperCollins, 2005, originally published 1930) > James Ellroy, American Tabloid (Arrow Books, 1995) > Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001, originally published 1941) > Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (Vintage, 1999, originally published 1950) > Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought (Orion, 2005, originally published 1931) > Simon Kernick, Deadline (Corgi, 2008) > Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know (Orion, 2007) > Ian Rankin, Black and Blue (Orion, 2008, originally published 1997) > Barbara Vine, A Fatal Inversion (Penguin, 2009, originally published 1987)
A published author compares a segment of her book to an earlier draft, discussing how – and why – she made her editing choices.
Diana Evans: Feeling your way
Excerpted from The Wonder (Chatto & Windus, £12.99)
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:P H OTO
24 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09