After a very long search for Abigail’s hero weapon, I’ve finally found a bad boy that would be dangerous, ridiculous and baddass enough to save the world with. This here is the Remington 1740, double barrel pump shotgun. What it really is, is actually two Remington 870’s that some maniac has attached to each other. One ejects to the left of the barrel and the other to the right. I’m sure it’s loud as hell, kicks like Bruce Lee and does more damage than Gary Busey on a coke binge.
If you want to write a crime novel, you’d better be ready to pick a fight. People are going to hate you and there’s nothing you can do about that.
They’re going to hate you for killing off their favorite characters, they’re going to lecture you for your use of bad language and they are going to resent you for taking them to places that challenge their values and beliefs. If you don’t like picking a fight, go write something else. But, if you like getting your knuckles bloody, you’ve come to the right place.
Writing is hard and finding your way through the words takes an immense amount of time. Here are 7 tips that I wish somebody had told me years before I put pen to paper.
(1) Don’t be boring
The worst crime a writer can commit is to be boring. I’d rather do serious time for murder than to be accused of being boring. If a crime novel turns out to be boring there’s a very high chance it is because the writer was bored while penning the decaf infused words. The worst piece of advice I have ever heard, and it’s slapped around like a 12 step mantra is, ‘Write what you know.’ It’s bullshit, never write what you know, write what excites you. You do that and that excitement will come across on the page and excite the reader.
(2) Grab the reader by the throat on the first page and don’t let go
In any story, the opening sentence, paragraph, page or chapter can be vital and crime writing is no exception. Start your story off like a shotgun blast in the middle of the night.
Here are a couple of opening types that have worked for me in the past.
The Action Opening: Start the novel with the hero in some sort of physical or emotional jeopardy
The Flashback Opening: Start with a moment of high drama from somewhere later in the novel and then flashback to the events leading up to it.
The First Day on the Job Opening: A good way to introduce the world to the reader is to discover it through the eyes of the hero. They may, as the title suggests, be starting a new job, or they may have just arrived in town.
The Everyday Hero Opening: Your protagonist is going about their everyday life and some event sends them spiraling off into another direction.
Outside Action: The outside action event could be a robbery, or a murder, or any problem that doesn’t involve the hero.
Never start with a description of the weather. In a crime novel, if you open with the description of the weather I’m going to think that the weather killed somebody.
(3) Have a crime
If you are writing a crime novel bad and awful things, sourced from the madness of your soul, need to happen. A crime novel without a crime isn’t a crime novel and a straight up murder isn’t going to cut it anymore. Give your criminals unique and conflicting reasons to be criminals. The bad guy in a story never knows he’s the bad guy. In his story, he’s the good guy. Your protagonist is only as strong as the forces of antagonism they are up against. Give them something to go up against.
*Note: A killer never kills because they are mad, there is always a reason.
(4) Don’t write likeable characters
Nobody likes likable characters. They may think they do and they may believe they do, but they really don’t. What they like are interesting characters. Characters that make mistakes, characters that think fast and think badly, flawed characters, but likeable characters. Likeable is boring. Crime novels are littered with sons of bitches, wild men, dubious women and double crossing bastards. Given the questionable nature of the characters that populate the pages of a crime novel, the question is how do you capture the hearts of the readers and keep them turning the page?
The answer is empathy.
Empathy is different from likable. Even the most renegade of criminal will detest a serial killer. But we are more than happy to read pages and pages of a serial killer roaming the streets of Florida murdering away for pleasure and work as Dexter does in Jeff Lindsey’s series. Readers don’t turn those pages because they like Dexter or believe in his cause. They do because they empathize with Dexter – he’s a guy who just wants to fit in.
Here are a couple of ways to create empathy.
- Make the hero funny
- Make the hero a victim
- Show the hero in a dilemma
- Show the hero being highly skilled
- Show the hero being selfless
(5) Endings that slap you in the face
A killer ending us just as important as a killer opening. The reader has been good enough to purchase your novel and read it all the way to the final pages so give them an ending that will knock them on their ass (and send them straight out to buy your next novel).
Great endings give the reader what they want but not in the way they expect it. It reads easy but it’s not. Think of the ending as a mini three-act structure with twists and turns, reversals, setbacks and new plans. And when you’re story is over, end it! That guy in the first act who had the really cool car and said those three cool lines of dialogue; to the hell with him — we don’t care where he ended up. As ‘B’ movie king, Roger Corman once said, when the monster is dead, the movie is over.
(6) Get into a fight
Get out of the office, hit the street and start a fight. I don’t care with who. I don’t care what about. You can’t expect to be a writer without getting out into the world and getting your heart and knuckles scraped. Don’t hide in the world, be a part of it, experience its disappointments and triumphs, anger and heartbreaks and put it all on the page.
(7) What the hell is your story about?
Well, what the hell is your story about?
This is the question you need to ask yourself every single day that you follow one word with another on the way to the final last few. I’m not talking about the high concept idea you pitch at parties where you say your novel is about a guy, from wherever, who does this, and that happens. I’m talking about what your story is about on a thematic level. What does it mean to you? What are you saying about the world with your story? What the hell is it really about?
It’s that hidden drive, buried deep in your sub-conscious that pushes you to get up early and stay up late pounding out the words at the typer. Some of us write out of anger, and some of us write out of sadness. The only way to define what it is you are really writing is to sit in that familiar position of pen in hand and write down a list:
Ten things that make you angry
Ten things that make you sad
Think about what relates to you most and give that trait to your protagonist. Bruce Wayne isn’t angry that his parents were murdered (although I’m sure that pissed him off) what really drives Bruce Wayne is that he is angry that people are not held responsible for their actions. Therefore, he becomes a vigilante. That is what is really at the heart of Batman. And whether you know it or not, there is something at the heart of your story and if you can define it, you can develop and explore it with a master’s control.
What I’ve been writing about here are only a few things that have helped me over my years in the war of the words, take what you can from it, and discard what you will. The words come differently to everyone. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow and sometimes not at all. In those times of darkness and empty pages remember that, if you wait, if you are patient, the words will always come.
Every criminal thinks they have a story to tell and as a crime writer, I listen to all of them. I first heard the name Frankie Bell from a guy I grew up with who did nine months inside for beating his neighbor to a side of beef because the neighbor played the classic rock hit Take It Easy on repeat for twelve hours. He said, “You want to hear some stories, go talk to Frankie Bell. But whatever you do, don’t let him anywhere near a cop”. He didn’t say why and at the time I didn’t think to ask. I was in the depths of researching Out of Exile and really needed to get out of the office. So I spent half a day on the phone tracking down a number for Frankie and when I spoke to him he agreed to meet the following day.
I stood on a busy corner in Collingwood when Frankie stopped the traffic to pull over and let me in. Horns were honked, abuse was yelled but Frankie didn’t seem to notice or care. He must have been seven foot tall and at least half as wide with hands the size of dinner plates. He had some errands to run around and do and asked if I mined tagging along. I didn’t and we hit the road.
“I just got out,” Frankie said rolling a cigarette with one hand and driving with the other and splitting his eye line between the two.
“How long were you in?”
“Just under three years.”
“Smacked around some coppers.”
“That’s a lot of copper.”
“That’s why the three years.”
A couple of blocks later he pulled the old XF Ford over to the side of the road in a suburban street where all the houses were worn down by life and time. We climbed out and headed to the front door.
“Just a quick stop,” Frankie said knocking on the door.
A moment later the door pulled back to reveal a little old lady dressed in clothes that hadn’t been fashionable for thirty years.
A smile crossed her face at the sight of Frankie. “Hello, luv. Are you here for your weekly?”
Her name was Joan and her house was hot. Cats were passed out in front of the heater and when she left, Frankie turned to me and said: “I”ve been coming here for years.”
Joan came back into the room before Frankie could answer and in her hands, she carried the biggest bag of marijuana I have ever seen in the hands of the elderly. “There you go,” she said handing it over.
Frankie palmed her some notes as he very politely declined Joan’s offer of a cup of tea and biscuits. Later Frankie told me Joan’s sons have a hydro set up somewhere in the bush and give her some weed to sell for a bit of extra pocket money. She’s only on a pension so Frankie feels good about giving her his business even though he could get better pot for the same price elsewhere.
On the drive back to Flemington, Frankie scanned through the radio looking for a good song. He settled on Jesse’s Girl and turned it up. “That Rick Springfield, what a talent,” he shouts over the song.
But as soon as the words left his mouth the smile dropped from his face and his whole body tensed up.
“What?” I said confused.
He shot a quick glance into the rearview mirror. “We got cops.”
My eyes darted to the massive bag of weed by my feet and back to Frankie. “What do we do?”
“We drive casual.”
“How do we do that?”
“You know, casual.”
If casual were an ex-crim and an over-educated writer cruising through Flemington with a massive bag of weed listening to Rick Springfield’s 80’s classic, Jesse’s Girl, then we were doing it.
I shuffled down in my seat and got an angle through the side view mirror. “They’re still there,” I said.
Frankie pulled a left turn. Then another left turn and yet another after that.
“What are you doing,” I said. “Stop turning left.”
“I can’t turn right.”
“The indicator is broken. They’ll pull us over if I turn and don’t indicate.”
“And this is a better idea!”
“Don’t yell at me.”
“We can’t keep turning left!”
Frankie slowed the car to a T-intersection. “We don’t have any choice.” He hooked a big finger around the lever and turned the indicator on and the moment he did flashing red and blues lit up the street and along with the dying wail of the siren.
Frankie pulled the car to the side of the road as I threw my jacket over the massive bag of weed by my feet and all I could think about was the warning: Don’t let Frankie Bell near any cops.
The cop approached the car and looked at Frankie with a hard look that he probably perfected from watching too much television and motioned to the radio that was still blasting out Jessie’s Girl. “Can you turn that down?”
“But it’s Rick Springfield?” Frankie said.
The cop sighed. “License.”
Frankie handed it over, and the cop looked at it, looked at us and headed back to the patrol to run the license.
Frankie’s face formed a V. “This pig better not mouth off, again. I don’t care I’ll clock him.” He turned to me. “You got my back, right?”
“What, no! Just be cool.”
“Do you see the way he was looking at me?”
Before Frankie could lose his shit the cop appeared and poked his head through the window, handed the license back and said: “Have a nice day.”
And then he was gone.
Frankie turned and smiled. “Ah, ha, ha. I”m a convicted criminal I am and look at that, outsmarted the coppers I did.”
“Just don’t use your indicator until he’s gone.”
Frankie wanted to celebrate our escape by smoking a bunch of weed and playing Nintendo. I couldn’t think of anything worse, I probably could but I couldn’t be bothered and had Frankie drop me at home. His hatred for police was seeded in some awful event and harbored for unknown reasons and by the time I climbed out of the car I worked up the courage to ask.
“Why did you beat all those cops up for?”
His eyes dipped with a hint of sorrow, regret and bad luck. “I didn’t know they were coppers at the time. We were down the pub and one of them put his hand up my girlfriend’s skirt. I just lost it.”
“What happened to the girl?”
“Got married while I was in jail,” he said. “I guess she didn’t really love me.”
And then I watched Frankie Bell’s beat up Ford disappear into the traffic.
You can spend years researching your novel. Standing in an office buried waist high in books, magazines and poorly formatted printouts from Google is only going to get you so far. Every once in a while you need to step out from behind the desk, you need to start a fight, you need to fall in love and make mistakes, you need to have regrets and you need to live and fail. And occasionally you need to get into a car with an ex-con, a bag of weed and listen to Rick Springfield.
First Published at Omnimystery
There are books out there so mean they give you paper cuts just from turning the pages. They’re filled with bastards and broken women; their pages faded brown and yellow and they smell as if they’ve been passed through the hands of one hundred men and left in the toilet stall of some dive in a part of town you wouldn’t step foot into unless you’re looking to get you knuckles bloody.
They are books that put hair on your chest. In no bloody order:
THE HUNTER – Richard Stark (1962)
This book is as cool as cool can be. Parker, a professional thief and cold hearted prick is screwed over on a job and then rips apart the city to retrieve his forty-five grand (lots of money back then).
KILLING FLOOR – Lee Child (1997)
Jack Reacher makes Jason Bourne look like ‘chick lit’. This former MP roams across America, with no ID and literally no baggage, getting into adventures. He falls in love with the girl, kills everyone and leaves town.
RED HARVEST – Dashiell Hammett (1929)
Hammett’s Continental Op is assigned to Poisonville to solve a murder but ends up punching, shooting and killing his way through a web of corruption in a world where everybody has gone ‘blood simple.’
FIGHT CLUB – Chuck Palahniuk (1996)
This dirty little book of rebellion follows a man suffering from insomnia, through support groups, underground boxing matches and revolutionary advances in the cosmetics industry in search of therapy.
IN A LONELY PLACE – Dorothy B Parker (1947)
Not only does In a Lonely Place have the best name for its hero, Dix Steele, it’s also one of the best portrayals of a psychological serial killer ever put on the page. The writing is subtle, and the characters superb in their post WWII California setting.
SIN CITY: THE HARD GOODBYE – Frank Miller (1991)
Everything Frank Miller writes has balls. The Hard Goodbye is the first in the Sin City series in which, brick shit house, Marv, is framed for the murder of the only woman who ever showed him a little bit of tenderness.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME – Jim Thompson (1952)
Jim Thompson, makes you read him. He’s uncompromising in his tale of local deputy sheriff/sociopath Lou Ford who has blackmail and murder on his mind. The Killer Inside Me has an amazing 1st person perspective, at one stage in the novel, Ford even apologies for the son of a bitch that he is.
L.A CONFIDENTIAL – James Ellory (1990)
3 cops, 3 cases and some of the fastest and most epic storytelling in the history of the genre. Ellory is brutal, his characters flawed and if you’re looking for a nostalgic look back at L.A in the 50s, fuck off.
THE GODFATHER – Mario Puzo (1969)
The ultimate decent into hell as we follow the young, idealist Michael Corleone as he destroys everything he holds dear while trying to save it.
Not only is it a great tale, but it is also full of lessons.
Three things we learn from The Godfather:
1) Always put Johnny Fontaine in your movie.
2) Never ask Michael about his affairs.
3) And don’t forget the cannoli.
SAVAGES – Don Winslow (2010)
Savages has the fastest and toughest first chapter in the history of first chapters. It’s the story of a couple of independent marijuana growers fighting off the cartel from taking over their business. It’s a demented underdog story where the words come off the page as if they were trying to uppercut the reader.
The Union Hotel