Masterclass: Writing Crime

Last week I attended a crime writing masterclass as part of the Emerging Writers Festival held at the Wheeeler Centre in Melbourne.

Anna George and Mark Brandi

The day opened with Angela Savage, author and Director of Writers Victoria, delivering a keynote on Conventions of Crime. Angela took us on an engaging and entertaining gallop through the history of crime fiction. Then she explained the breakdown of crime genres from cosy mysteries like Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, hard boiled crime such as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Australian noir including Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series and the social thrillers – think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

And here’s a couple of ‘did you know’ fast facts from Angela’s talk:

• Agatha Christie is the best-selling fiction author of all time with an estimated two billion copies of her books in print. Her work has been translated into more than 70 languages and she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Not bad considering her first book was rejected by six publishers.

• Tart noir (originally called slut noir) is a branch of crime fiction characterised by tough, independent female detectives, who are also yielding enough to love a man with rough edges. Go girrrls.

• Mysteries, where the antagonist is revealed at the end to both the reader and the protagonist, are considered easier to write than thrillers, which require tight plotting to maintain suspense.

Nayuka Gorrie, Queenie Bon Bon and Gala Vanting

The second session had Mark Brandi (author of Wimmera and The Rip) and Anna George (The Lone Child and What Came Before) chatting about plotting and pacing and how they approached these in their own writing. It became clear that each book is different and your approach to plotting and pacing might need to be adapted to work for the project on hand.

Angela recommended Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Writing Detective Fiction reproduced here by cosy mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig.

In session three, Gala Vanting, Nayuka Gorrie and Queenie Bon Bon discussed the notion of Representing Criminalisation, a feminist perspective on writing socially aware crime fiction. This session wasn’t for everyone (a couple of blokes walked out), but I found it a fascinating discussion on the realities of criminalisation and how we might use our crime writing to look differently at societal power structures and the politicisation of marginalised communities. They challenged us to unpack our notions of ‘the criminal’ and ‘the victim’ and what we interpret as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Their discussion lent itself to activist crime fiction, or radical noir. Think Eva Dolan, This is How it Ends, Gary Phillips, The Underbelly, Kate Raphael, Murder Under the Bridge and John le Carré, The Constant Gardener.

(?), Lindy Cameron and Anna Snoekstra

After a bite to eat at the Moat for lunch, I settled in to listen to Anna Snoekstra (Spite Game and Mercy Point) and Lindy Cameron, Sisters in Crime President and founder of Clandestine Press, talk about to agent or not to agent, the importance of a good synopsis, and thinking beyond our own shores for publishing. They said all crime novels need a good sense of place, a twisty mystery, and engaging characters to attract the attention of publishers.

One of the most memorable suggestions was to try different elevator pitches with every person who asks you about your book to see which is the best one…lookout friends, is all I can say to that.

Here are some resources they recommended to assist with your publishing journey:

Query Tracker – an international agent database, that is free to join.

The Australian Writers Marketplace – a guide to the writing and publishing industry in Australia and beyond, it has over two thousand active listings in the directory. AWM is free to join for basic use of pay a one off $24.95 for complete access.

The final session, Killing your Darlings, was delivered workshop style by Kat Clay. We talked cliches about killing people in fiction, understanding the moral argument and symbolism of murder in fiction, and thinking about what death means to our characters in terms of their development – it’s a very different matter if they are afraid of their own mortality than if they live for the thrill of being close to death.

Kat’s resource tip was Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Main image: What’s your genre?

Dainty Swallowtail Butterfly on grapefruit leaves

The chrysalis

As the southern hemisphere tilted further and further away from the sun I was beginning to wonder whether the celestial machinery might break down entirely and the sun disappear over the horizon, never to return.    The winter solstice is a reason to rejoice as it marks the journey toward the emergence of spring, but it’s cold enough to freeze the (insert your preferred body part) off a brass monkey at the moment.

The words ‘emerge’ and ‘spring’ make me think of a butterfly as it emerges from its chrysalis and bursts into the air to entertain the spring flowers.  Last week I experienced a different kind of emergence when I went along to the Emerging Writers Festival National Writers Conference.  What is an ‘emerging writer’ you ask?  I love the image of a soft moist writer breaking out of a chrysalis, pen in hand, ready to flutter about enlightening the world with their words. But it’s a bit more complicated and contentious than that.

Humans love a hierarchy of power and it turns out the industry for introverts is no different.  The world of writing has its own meritocracy designed around the utopia of publication.   We are categorized as early, emerging or established depending on how much, and how, we have published.  Early writers have not published, emerging have published in journals or anthologies and established writers have published a full manuscript.  The last category excludes self-publishing.  Publishing and self-publishing is a whole other hierarchical discussion.  These writer categories relate to peer recognition and the politics of power tied to that.  They completely overlook the effort an individual may have put in to produce their work and discount that there are some excellent self-published books on the market.

The writer status must apply to the development of ones ‘craft’ in the public domain rather than a lucrative career given that most published authors still need a day job to sustain them. The terms also serve a purpose in the funding arena to determine who can and cannot apply for grants.  For example, the Richell Prize is for early and emerging writers (publication in anthologies and journals or self-publishing do not exclude you from entry).

I recall when one of my earliest poems (judged blind) had been selected for publication.   The organization sponsoring the prize contacted me and said, “I don’t know why they selected that one,” as if being unknown should have excluded me from the privilege of selection.  It does highlight the importance of not taking yourself or what other says about you too seriously, something I waxed lyrical about in an earlier post about writing resilience.   As the saying goes what other people think of you is none of your business.

Anyway, I digress.  The National Writers Conference was an opportunity to hear a range of established authors reflect on their emergent journeys.  One common theme was that the angst of recognition is almost immediately replaced by a different kind of angst once established.  Many of the established writers who spoke wished for the lack of expectation that existed before they were published.  They suffered from fear of the blank page.  Will I be able to do it again? Perhaps writers and artists in general are an inherently anxious bunch due to the mysterious and sometimes illusive muse, aka imagination.

The festival was a great opportunity to hear writers and publishers reflect on their craft and the industry. The thing I love most about music and writing festivals is coming across an artist you find inspiring but have never heard or read before.  I was particularly taken by Melissa Lucashenko’s reflections to inspire writers.  She also shared her eloquent insights on writing and colonization and how we, as Australian writers, think about land, place, people and out history when writing.   I’ll be adding her novel Mullumbimby to my reading list and she has another one, Too Much Lip, coming out in September.  Rajith Savanadasa, author of Ruins, a novel about a family living in Colombo and grappling with the changes brought about by the Sri Lankan civil war, gave a poetic lecture about nourishing yourself and your creative practice. I will also add his book to my reading list.

What are you reading now?

 

Image: Dainty Swallowtail Butterfly checking out the grapefruit