Sunday, 7 May 2017

Top 10 Tips on Writing Crime Fiction from Mark Billingham

On the evening of 5th April 2017, I attended the Writers' & Artists' ‘How to Write Crime Fiction’ masterclass, with top crime author Mark Billingham. It was a fantastic introduction to writing crime fiction – talking rules and when to break them. I wrote the following blog post for the Writers' & Artists' website (click here).

Here are 10 top tips I learnt from Mark

1. Write the book you want to read
Don’t look for gaps in the market. 
Write about what interests you as a reader – this is likely to interest other people too.

2. Choose a strong opening
You need to hook the reader quickly and early. You have 15 seconds in a bookshop to ‘sell’ your book through the cover, blurb and first few paragraphs. Lure the reader in with a killer sentence or anything that asks a question. This is essential if you’re submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher, as it’s all you’ve got.

3. Decide on your point of view (POV)
You may find you write more quickly and easily in first person. But the protagonist has to be present in every scene and can’t know what anyone else is thinking. Your character also needs to be interesting as everything is filtered through their worldview. Their thoughts need to be entertaining to keep your readers engaged.
Second person – ‘you’ is rarely used.
Third person has more scope and is most commonly used in crime fiction. But the POV must be consistent – no head hopping within a scene or chapter. Chapters can switch between viewpoints or some may be written in the first person to get inside the killer’s head.

4. Find your own way
Decide whether, and how much, you want to plot in advance. Do what’s right for you.
Mark takes the ‘driving at night’ approach to writing. He knows where he’s going, but can only see as far as the headlights. The journey opens up bit by bit and sometimes he comes to dead ends and brick walls. He’ll have an idea of what’s going to happen 40 or so chapters ahead. But, he says, surprising yourself as you write is part of the fun.

5. Don’t get bogged down by research
Do your research after you’ve written your story. Then you’ll know what you need to know. Crime readers can be savvy about procedure, such as DNA and fingerprints, so don’t take liberties.
Visit locations if you can, simply to get a feel of a place – what they smell like, what they look like. You can’t get all of that on Google Maps.
Illnesses and addictions affect a lot of people so it’s good to have a proper insight, and people are usually happy to talk. If you’re talking to coppers, listen to their anecdotes and banter.

6.  Dialogue is everything
Great writers can do everything through dialogue, conveying information and character traits. So if you’re good at writing dialogue, use it a lot. You can even write whole scenes in dialogue if this works for you. Remember though, dialogue looks different on a screen to how it sounds. So read it out loud. If you hear clunky lines, lose them.
Character and realism in dialogue is more important that literary eloquence. But unnecessary dialogue can be tedious so ditch the small talk. And remember that naturalistic dialogue isn’t always readable, so you may have to adapt it.

7. Be disciplined
Every writer has their own routine. Some have no routine at all. It’s important to keep writing – 5000 words a week is a good target, but it’s not set in stone. Some days will be less productive than others. If you’re struggling to write more of your story one day, write something else for a while.

8. Less is more
Nudge the reader’s imagination. A single drop of blood on a pristine kitchen floor can be far more powerful than a graphic murder scene.
If you’re good at describing landscapes, describe them. But don’t paint the whole picture. Readers also don’t need to know everything about your characters’ clothes, hair or mannerisms.

9. When you’re done, rewrite
Some people write from beginning to end and then go back to the beginning and do the rewrites. Others can’t write chapter 2 unless they’ve finished with chapter 1.
Rewriting is generally taking stuff away, but not always. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Leave out the boring parts readers tend to skip.
At some point you’ll need to hand your manuscript over to a reader for their opinion. Make sure it’s someone you trust but someone who’ll be honest too. If they’re telling you something’s not right, it’s often confirming what you already know.

10. Finish things – and start again
This is what makes you into a writer – you finish what you’ve started. Don’t give up halfway through.
As a writer, you’ll do a lot of waiting – for agents, publishers, edits… – so always be thinking about your next book.

Obviously rules are made to be broken - so you may wish to adapt some to suit your own writing!

Huge thanks to Mark Billingham for his advice, and to Writers & Artists for putting on such a brilliant evening - not just informative but great value too. And, finally, a big thank you to Susi Holliday, another fab crime writer who told me about the masterclass in the first place!


  1. This is incredibly helpful and interesting! Thank you for sharing all the top tips from what must have been a fantastic master class!

    1. Brilliant evening. I want to get to another one soon.