Saturday, December 07, 2013

So What Makes a Good Crime Novel Anyway? Can an Editor Help?

This weekend, Type M welcomes guest blogger Allister Thompson, editor extraordinaire who edited and polished up the novels of several present and former Type M bloggers, including myself. Now a freelancer, he shares his experiences with the mysterious craft.

I was recently asked to deliver a talk to a venerable and successful crime writing group about what the heck an editor does and the nature of the advice I give to authors when I work with them. My response was a wide-ranging and perhaps rambling lecture on everything from the do and do nots of writing to navigating the minefield of heartache that is the publishing industry.

All this got me thinking about the nature of fiction — the eternal story as expressed across various genres. We all know that because of commerce’s obsession with categorization, crime fiction is “genre fiction”, though the lines are very easily blurred. For instance, what the heck makes something a “literary mystery”? Are we suggesting the writing in that novel is somehow better? That others, such as a garden variety cozy, are somehow “unliterary”? (As an aside, that sort of snobbishness in the literary world is one of my major pet peeves about working in this business.)

I decided upon examination that the fundamentals of storytelling have really not changed since the first tentative grunts by the campfire, no matter how experimental modern writers can be. We have to give the reader a reason to invest several hours, at least, of her short time on this globe in the fruit of our imagination. She must take something of value from it, whether it’s a profound, valuable message, or just the enjoyment of entering another reality via a good yarn. Enlightenment or escapism, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are focused on what you want to achieve, because a lack of focus can be deadly.

Having seen thousands upon thousands of fiction manuscripts in my day, I think I might have gained some insight into what works, and the key word is found above: focus. Some writers are gifted with the ability to just sit down with an idea and spew out a coherent storyline, fully fleshed-out and rational. I suspect that such people are rare. The rest of us have to plan, and that’s the first step on the road to writing success. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to plot out on a flowchart every nuance of your novel before filling things in, but it does provide the opportunity to avoid the mistakes writers often make when they don’t put in the extra time to re-evaluate and hone their work.

Examples of these are:
  • having a story that constantly switches points of view to the extent that we don’t know who the novel is really about;
  • cluttering up an 80,000-word ms. with dozens of superfluous characters simply for the joy of exercising your imagination;
  • not identifying the key themes or events to occur in your novel, thereby creating a work that could be about ten different things, with none seeming more important than the next;
  • inserting plotlines or themes or characters that seem important at first but then just fade out, to be replaced by another.

These seem like pretty basic tenets, but it’s amazing how often they are ignored — mostly by newbies learning the craft, to be sure, but it still happens. And if you’re going to try to market yourself, be it to publishers or agents, or to your readers as a self-published author, you need to put the best possible product out there, or you’re dead in the water.

Another piece of dead simple advice for prospective fiction writers is: figure out what you are saying, then say it as clearly as possible, and as rationally. Take the appropriate steps to make your work authentic. If these events could happen in real life, as they could in, say, a police procedural, it’s crucial the reader does not question that realism. If that means you have to contact a cop to learn about how certain investigations are conducted, then you’ve got do it, because there’s nothing worse than reading a police novel in which the reader just knows that things wouldn’t unfold the way they are in the narrative.

Similarly, if you are writing a historical novel, get that period research right. Historical fiction aficionados will set upon you like a pack of hyenas if, in your novel set in 1955, someone’s typing away on a computer! And yet I have seen this sort of thing many times, not because the writer was stupid, but because she or he was not thinking straight while writing or revising.

The cozy subgenre is a tricky one in terms of believability, because the cozy is based on a logical fallacy: that a normal person who, for example, owns a tropical fish emporium would constantly come across bodies and murderers during the course of a twelve-book series. In this case, I think the trick is your premise must be compelling and original enough to stand out. And your protagonists must be really appealing. Not to mention that you’ve got to keep finding new ways for your character to become embroiled in murder investigations! But it can work, and I’ve seen it done by some pretty masterful cozy writers.

All of this is excruciatingly obvious, I guess, but it does suggest that the rules of fiction travel across all genres, whether you’re trying for a Giller by writing the saga of a tragically doomed farming family in Northern Saskatchewan torn apart by war or you’re writing a noir-ish romp about a Mongolian-Canadian cop working a murder at a Tibetan temple in the mean streets of Winnipeg. Leave no stone unturned, constantly examine your writing, make sure you plan everything, and, above all, make sure your novel is interesting! There’s nothing new under the sun, but each person and each writer has his or her own personality, his or her own special view of the world. That’s what we readers need: we need you to put it all on the line and take us on a journey that no one else can. We don’t need more trees chopped down to print novels that duplicate the contribution of present successes.

Okay, so you’ve taken it as far as you can on your own or with the help of a writing group, but you aren’t sure if your work is ready for public display. What to do?

Well, that’s where we editors come in. Now, I hate to be mean, but a lot of authors seem stuck in a certain mindset. That is, they don’t want to spend money. They want to finish their work, have it published, get an advance, and the publisher pays for the work to be edited. Then the royalties flow!

This is a best-case scenario, but it only happens to a chosen few. And furthermore, without the help of a dispassionate and experienced eye, you may never get to that point. The help an editor can provide can be the difference between getting that book deal or languishing and dreaming about what might have been.

If you have a draft of a novel, it’s a great idea to reach out to an editor with experience in your area of focus. Editors provide a range of services throughout the development of a manuscript:
  • Substantive editing to help you shape that plot stuff I was talking about and keep an eye out for those nasty issues that can creep in. We can help you develop your characters, express your theme, all that stuff. This is a very valuable step to take, because it gets you off on the right foot in early drafts. Waiting till after your tenth draft to ask for outside help … not so good.
  • You may have a great story but are weak in the technical areas of writing. In that case, your editor can polish and copy edit your work for you. This is a great step to take because your submission will be as professional as possible when you send it. There’s no room for error.
  • Editors with suitable experience can help you with your submissions and all that entails: the query letters, the synopses — whatever agents and publishers can ask for. Or;
  • If you are self-publishing, an editor can help you choose the best way to get that done, the most affordable way that gets you the best bang for your buck. An experienced editor can give you best advice to make sure you print the right amount of copies, market your ebook, get a great cover done, all that good stuff.
It’s natural not to want to spend a lot on a passion that is often considered a hobby (especially by family and friends), and we understand this. You try to do as much as you can on your own. But at a certain point it’s a good idea to seek out the services of someone with the experience and knowledge to push you over the crest of the hill.

Allister Thompson has been a professional book editor since 1997, in-house for two crime fiction publishers and now on his own as a freelance editor. He’s had the pleasure of editing many award-winning and award-nominated crime writers, and none of them seem to have it in for him thus far. He edits from his home in Toronto with the assistance of giant cat. He can be found online at


Rick Blechta said...

Allister knows of what he speaks. I has taken my deathless prose and made it even more deathless than ever. Seriously, he is a great editor and a nice human being to boot.

Thanks for being our guest!

Laurie Januska said...

This was a wonderful read! Thanks for sharing the secrets of your art, Allister.