Debut author Amer Anwar gives his top tips for writing your first crime novel. Don’t miss Amer at the Killer Debuts panel on Saturday 24 September during the Noirwich festival weekend.
‘Remember, stick at it and don’t give up.’
It took me many years and a lot of work to complete my first crime novel. Along the way I learned a lot about the writing process – or at least, as it applies to me. Every writer is different, so different things will suit different people. There is no right or wrong way. It’s really about what works for you. Having said that, here are some things I learned which I hope you may find useful.
1. Write every day
Writing, like any other exercise, gets a little easier the more you do it. Not that the writing itself is easier, it’s just that you become more accustomed to doing it. You’ll be more adept at getting into a writing frame of mind and jumping right back into your story.
Like running a marathon, it takes regular training to be able to tackle such a mammoth feat. Writing every day flexes your mental muscles and whips your imagination into shape, for the long and arduous task of writing a novel. And, just like a marathon, it’ll still be hard but working at it every day will make it feel just that little bit easier.
2. Get the first draft done
Hemingway is quoted as saying, ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ so don’t expect yours to be any better. Mine certainly wasn’t. The most important thing is to keep going and get to the end. Don’t worry about editing for now; the first draft is just for you, a guide. Once you’ve completed it, you’ll have a whole novel. Then you can start worrying about editing and revising it.
I struggled with this at first, but then switched to writing longhand, pen on paper. Old fashioned, I know, but it forced me to keep moving forward. There’s only so much you can edit longhand, so it made me just plough on.
3. Take a break
OK, so you’ve completed the first draft. It wasn’t great (no surprise there) and you’ve edited and redrafted the whole thing, probably several times. You’re pretty pleased with it. Now is exactly the time to stick it in a drawer, or in a folder on your hard drive, and leave it for a while. How long? The longer, the better. I left my novel alone for a whole year, through circumstance rather than choice, but when I did go back to it, I was much more objective. It was almost like reading someone else’s work, which made me a lot more ruthless in finding faults and cutting or fixing them.
4. Read aloud
Reading your work out loud will help you identify areas where your writing isn’t quite working or where it might be slightly clunky. It also helps with the rhythm and structure of your sentences. I would read aloud any sections I was having difficulty with, especially dialogue. How it looks on the page is very different to how it sounds when spoken, and doing it can really help you get the voice down right.
5. Get some feedback
After all the work you’ll have done on the book by yourself, it’s a good idea to get some other opinions on it. This is hard. Believe me, I know. What you need to do is find, say, three or four people whose opinions you trust and let them read it. Make sure they’re people who read a lot, preferably the genre you’re writing in and who won’t simply tell you it’s great because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. I picked a few friends that I knew would like the type of book I’d written and specifically told them to focus only on anything they didn’t like or that they felt wasn’t working and to let me know. I made it clear that by doing this, they’d be helping me improve the book, which was all I wanted. Receiving any negative feedback is difficult but it’s very necessary. You don’t have to accept all of it. Some you’ll know is right and, if most of your readers comment on the same parts, then you’ll know there’s something that needs fixing. If it helps to make your book better, it’s definitely worth it.
Well, those are my tips. They might help you or they might not. They worked for me and, at the very least, you can try some of them out and see if they help you too. I hope they’ll be of use. Remember, stick at it and don’t give up. Good luck.