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How to Write a Crime Novel: The Editor’s Guide

Crime novels are incredibly popular, but this popularity makes it a very competitive genre for new writers trying to make their mark.

Given this, you might be wondering how to write a crime novel that will actually stand out? Luckily, we’ve asked someone who might just have the answers…

Frankie Gray is Senior Commissioning Editor for crime and thrillers at Transworld Publishers. She’s kindly shared her expert advice on how to write a crime novel that will get published, sell and satisfy genre fans.

The difference between a good crime novel and a bestseller

Countless excellent crime novels don’t achieve the bestseller status they richly deserve. That said, there is something that all bestselling crime novels have in common: the desire they elicit in readers to discuss them, to recommend them and in so doing perpetuate their sales.

Personal recommendation is one of the most powerful selling tools there is and it’s worth bearing this in mind – what would people talk about having finished your book?

This isn’t to say that you need to reveal that the killer is a three-headed monster or something just as ridiculous, but it’s worth considering, whilst also retaining your vision for the book and its integrity.

How to write a crime novel that will sell

If we apply the logic that what makes a bestseller is a talking point, and that these are novels that inflame a reader’s curiosity/ire/mirth/heartstrings, then I think it’s important to think about what the well-versed crime reader will be expecting in a novel of this genre:

  • To be surprised – Everyone loves a reading experience that takes them in an unexpected direction, and leaves them at an unforeseen destination. Many crime novels use twists to great effect and a cracking twist, which surprises and astonishes the reader, can encourage personal recommendation; who are they going to discuss their shock with if no one they know has read the book?!
  • To be afraid – The majority of crime novels will – to varying degrees – scare their readers. Whether producing outright terror or just one or two chilling images, the most successful novels in the genre will give the reader a lasting memory that they’d rather forget!
  • To be engaged – All authors would hope that their writing engages, intrigues and excites their readers. In reading a crime novel we are expecting to be brought in to the investigation, and given clues that we can understand, ponder and perhaps even solve. An easily solved mystery isn’t always fulfilling, but neither is an impossible one – be wary of the frustrated reader…
  • Not to be disappointed – How often has a perfectly good book disappointed you because it had been lauded as ‘the best book ever’ but failed to quite live up to that? It’s worth considering the expectation your reader will be bringing to the novel, but also the assumptions they’ll make as they read. Building up to a twist can be a handy narrative trick for propelling the reader through the book, as they race to discover the truth. But beware of letting them down when they get there. It’s fine to surprise them – in fact it’s probably the best result – but the outcome should be believable and anything but disappointing. A satisfying or memorable ending can be crucial in eliciting reader buy-in to an author, and is particularly important with a series.
  • To be enamoured/intrigued – Character is always important but if you’re planning a crime series, it’s particularly so. A compelling, complex character can provide readers with the motivation to buy the subsequent books in the series, particularly if there’s an intriguing suggestion that there’s much still to be discovered about this character…
Using genre tropes

Unlike other areas of the market, many crime readers are self-confessed ‘crime-fiction fans’ and as such will know what to expect from the genre. There is consequently a fine line to tread between satisfying the expectation people bring to their reading experience and having iterations of the same books over and over again.

In this regard, I think character is key. Elements of crime novels may share similarities to other novels but a strong central character (or characters) offers the best opportunity to do something different, original and intriguing.

There’s also an interesting trend towards genre-boundary-pushing novels: crime novels that have a hint of the supernatural, of fantasy or of horror. It can sometimes be challenging to get these books to readers, as the messaging can be more complicated when it comes to title, cover and copy (the simplified message we send to the prospective reader), but it’s a fascinating evolution of the genre.

I would advocate caution, though. It’s clear to everyone – agent, editor, retailer, reader – when an author has compromised the integrity of their writing and is consciously writing to market. Write what you want to, not what you think others will want to read.

Avoiding clichés

As above, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between a cliché and a trope that readers love to see in crime novels. Personally, I count as a cliché anything which feels lazy, particularly character devices that feel like shortcuts.

For example, drinking. There are countless alcoholic central characters and it’s often used as a way of communicating a damaged and conflicted soul. If their alcoholism is serving a purpose, fine. If it’s a way of telling the reader something about them without having to think of other, more complex ways to do so then I’d rather see those explored.

Key advice for all new crime writers
  • Read – You can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader
  • Immerse yourself in the genre – Read widely in the crime genre; know your competition, know your market.
  • Get involved – The crime community offers a huge wealth of opportunities to do so, whether attending festivals or events, or engaging online with the rest of the community.
  • Plot – Think carefully about your plotting throughout. Exposition is key.
  • Be patient – The process can take a long, long time: to write, to get an agent, to get a book deal and, hopefully, to sell well. Be patient, take advice, be kind and keep the faith.

For more help on how to write a crime novel, you might want to check out our article on writing prompts for mystery writers.

You can also grab a host of free writing resources over at our Writer’s Toolbox page:

Image of the Writer's Toolbox series of free writing resources

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2 thoughts on “How to Write a Crime Novel: The Editor’s Guide

  1. Thank you for this ‘taster’ of what is to come. I am just about to travel to Greece for a couple of weeks which in the past have proved to be a wonderful environment for me to write.

    I am well on the way with my fourth novel so I hope to finish it soon, but hope to use what I am doing as the basis gorgeous what is yo come in your course

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