Five Rules for (Crime) Writing by Adrian Hyland
Adrian Hyland, author of the Emily Tempest novels (Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road) shares his top tips for crime writing.
Character is the heart and soul of the modern novel, and crime seems to be better at creating it than any other branch of the trade. Think Miss Smilla, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, the elusive Father Brown. These people are alive. We know them, love them.
My favourite character in crime fiction is the great Andy Dalziel, he of the omnivorous appetites and sledgehammer humour (and cursed be the BBC for stripping away that gargantuan personality and squeezing it into a gimcrack television series). When Reginald Hill died a while ago, I felt as if I’d lost a friend. Not Reg: Andy.
I personally find that I can’t create characters out of thin air, and I’m wary of characters ‘borrowed’ from other works of art (or worse - the bloody telly). I need a real person to begin with. They might be heavily disguised, dressed up, stripped down, gender realigned, but somewhere in there lurks a living, breathing human being.
In my second book, Gunshot Road, I introduced into the narrative a slightly crazed young woman.
‘You had one of those in your first book,’ commented my editor, Mandy Brett. ‘You can’t have another one. You’ll start getting stereotyped - the feller who does the crazy ladies¯.¯.¯.’
The trouble was that I needed an unbalanced character to propel the plot forward at one or two vital moments.
‘Maybe you could just change her to a male?’ Mandy suggested.
So that was what I tried to do. But it didn’t work. The new character just wouldn’t come to life. I dicked around with him for weeks, scribbling page after lousy page. Then, one afternoon, I was out splitting wood, when a memory rose to the surface: a troubled youth I’d known, drink and drug-addled, destroying a radio with his nulla nulla.
Zap! That was it; I had my man. I pulled out a notebook, did a quick character sketch, saw at once how to fit him into the story. I achieved more in those five minutes than I had in weeks (I also wonder, in retrospect, whether the adrenaline or whatever you get from heavy physical activity didn’t have something to do with freeing up the imagination).
2. Get rhythm
My publisher, Text, has an annual award known as the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. This seems to me to be about the toughest nut to crack; the experts tell you write about what you know, and childhood is the one thing everybody thinks they know. Consequently, there are thousands of manuscripts cruising around the slush piles at any given moment.
Dropping into the office one time, I glanced at the daunting pile in the corner of the office and asked Mandy: ‘How the hell do you work your way through that lot?’ The answer - depressing for any writer - was that most of them get no more than a few minutes’ consideration. A page or two, maybe a chapter, is often enough to gauge the quality of the work.
‘So what’s your criterion for quality?’
‘The rhythm of the language,’ she replied. ‘If your author’s got a tin ear, you can tell straightaway. Whereas if they can write a decent sentence, chances are they can write a paragraph; if they can write a paragraph¯.¯.¯.’
So there you have it - or at least one esteemed editor’s view of it. It’s all about rhythm.
And how do you enhance the rhythm of your language?
There are lots of tricks, but for me the most important is to read your work out loud; say it ‘slowly and deliberately’, as I once heard the Clancy Brothers declaim. Listen to the way the consonants clash, the vowels harmonise.
Your writing should do more than tell a story or describe a character; it should reflect the story, manifest the character. It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that writers of a Celtic background - Ken Bruen, Chris Brookmyre, our own dear Shane Maloney - are the masters of this art. I suspect there’s a dash of Celtic poetry - filtered through Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Hugh MacDiarmid - circulating in their blood.
3. Read. Widely.
This may sound like a quote from Captain Obvious, but when I teach writing, I’m always astonished by the number of young wannabes who have written more than they’ve read. Is it television? I don’t know, but unless you look like Elle Macpherson (who famously commented that she didn’t read books unless she’d written them) you’re not going to get away with that.
Your writing is a reflection of your reading. If your reading isn’t up to scratch, there’s a pretty good chance your writing won’t be either.
4. Revise, and then revise some more
I’m a revision Nazi. I never stop; if I had my way, I’d be creeping around the bookshops, pencil in hand, making alterations to my books. I tend to pour it all out in the first drafts, and then get out the scalpel and cut the flab, scrap the bits a reader will skip. To me, the goal of revision is concision. This applies both on the micro and the macro levels - from each sentence to the whole book.
I remember once trying to describe the scene as Emily Tempest steps into an outback bar. I became a little obsessed with light and its illimitable manifestations. I even read Newton’s Opticks. I rambled on for pages, describing sunbeams refracting off bottles, bubbles running down amber glass, the glimmer of gristle snagged on an old man’s tooth. When I paused for a cup of tea, I picked up Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot and came across a sentence in which he described the drawing room in a country homestead: ‘It was difficult to tell where the light ended and the glass began.’ I remember putting the book aside with a soft sigh, mourning the fact that I would never have the imagination to crash two images together like that.
Peter Temple does this all the time. His novels are like haiku written by the Seven Samurai. The best writers are like that. They are alchemists; they take disparate elements and refine them into gold.
5. My last piece of advice
Ignore all advice, mine and everybody else’s. Forge your own path, which is what every other decent writer has done.