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Learning from the experts

September 14, 2009

I guess most aspiring writers have read ‘how to write’ books.  The burgeoning selection on the shelves at Downie Towers can be a source of wise counsel, a comfort when things aren’t going well and a hopeless distraction when the real way forward to is to sit at the desk and put words on paper.

What I’ve begun to realise, though, is that there’s very little advice around on, ‘How to write your next novel’ or indeed the ones after that.*  Maybe we’re supposed to know it all by then? (Maybe everyone else does?)

Anyway, on Friday afternoon it was a delight to spend time in the company of a large number of readers plus Anne Perry, Susanna Gregory and Peter Guttridge –  writers who have already faced these challenges and survived.  Considering the amount I’d learned by the end of the day, I should probably have paid to be there.

The only disappointment was that a scheduling mix-up meant Andrew Martin wasn’t on the panel. This was a shame because I’d really enjoyed reading one of his ‘Jim Stringer’ novels as homework and was looking forward to hearing from the man himself.

(Jim Stringer, for those who don’t know, is a Yorkshire railwayman in the years before the First World War. I met him and The Wife in ‘Death on a Branch Line’.  He’s the sort of character whose voice you can still hear after you’ve closed the book.)

So, that was the Reading Festival of Crime Writing. Now down to some real work before the next chance to pick other writers’ brains – a Mystery Women panel at Heffer’s in Cambridge. This has turned out to be more of a mystery than intended as I hadn’t checked exactly who was on the panel.   So it was nice surprise to see this as I strolled past the shop yesterday:

Photo of Heffers events board outside the shop

For those without bionic eyesight, it reads,

Monday 21 September at 6.30 pm – Mystery Women Event

An evening with Barbara Cleverly, Ruth Downie, Laurie R King and Manda Scott.

The event’s being moderated by Michelle Spring. This link to Heffers site gives details of how to get tickets – not only for us, but for Lindsey Davis’s talk on the  following Thursday. Looks like it’s going to be a good week in Cambridge.

*Anyone want to swap recommendations?

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4 comments

  1. So those books about How to Write A Novel really are worthwhile? *raised eyebrow* I didn’t even know that there were books on how to write crime novels! I must lead a sheltered life. Don’t mean to pry or anything but have those really been helpful to you (i.e. creating an outline, detailing your story, etc)? I’ve tried to get into those but as soon as I pick up the first chapter, my eyes glaze over. *wince*


  2. Interesting question, Toni. I know what you mean about the ‘write your novel by the end of the week’ books – despite plenty of good intentions, my own method of production is so chaotic they don’t seem to make much impression on it. Louise Doughty did a sensible ‘novel in a year’ series in the Daily Telegraph, though – it might still be on the internet somewhere.

    The books I’ve found useful tend to be less about systems and more about ways of approach – Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’ is a classic, as is William Goldman’s ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’. I’ve also done a lot of dipping into a collection of exercises called ‘Taking Reality by Surprise’ (edited by Susan Sellers).

    There are books that reassure writers they’re not going crackers (Julia Cameron is very wise), and ‘The Forest for the Trees’ by Betsy Lerner may help authors not to send their editors the same way. ‘Solutions for Writers’ by Sol Stein is good on how to get yourself out of the hole you’ve just typed yourself into – and yes, there are books on how to write crime novels.

    In the end, though, I guess we all find our own ways through. I’m sure there are plenty of great novelists out there who’ve never read any ‘how to’ books at all…


  3. Good heavens. O_O Seems like you’ve spent a fair amount of time preparing yourself before foraying into the unknown territory marked “Author”. Thank you for the suggestions. Hopefully, they will help me finish my own works-in-waiting and not feel like I’m headed straight for the place “Where They Be Monsters”. This may be a personal question so please feel free to put me in my place: when did you decide to create Ruso and Tilla? Was it your passion for archaelogy that prompted this Roman-era crime fiction? I have to say, that I’d never been a fan of crime fiction until now. I still may not be; however, I do love your series. It’s intelligent, entertaining and does not treat the reader as if they were a blockhead. Thank you for taking the time to reply. Think I’ll go hunt these books down and get cracking :D


    • Thanks for the kind comments, Toni.

      How I got interested in the Romans is something I’ve just been talking about with Sari over at http://theviewfromsarisworld.blogspot.com/

      Ruso and Tilla were two characters plucked from the backstory of something else I was writing (which didn’t work out), initially just to provide three chapters for a ‘start a novel’ competition. Only afterwards did it become clear that their story was much more interesting than the other thing. So you never know what’s lurking in those works-in-waiting…



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