With my very senior witch’s hat on I – erm – signed up for this event twice. Nearly three times, in fact. I’m obviously quite keen. ‘How to Write a Crime Fiction Bestseller’ was the way for some Tuesday morning skiving off work, to hang out with Vaseem Khan on Zoom, courtesy of The Society of Authors. It was really for budding crime writers, but as I have no novel – crime or otherwise – in me, I was able to lean back and enjoy.
With two pointy implements behind him – his Historical Dagger Award, and a cactus – plus a suitably messy bookcase, Vaseem looked the business. Apparently crime pays, or at least, it outsells other genres. Beer helps, if he’s to be believed.
I already loved Vaseem, but to find out he used to be a Terry Pratchett wannabe was a lovely surprise. When that didn’t pay, and didn’t even let him escape getting an education, he went to LSE, became a management consultant and went to India to work for ten years. And for twenty long years he wrote seven novels that all failed to go anywhere, possibly because he wrote what he thought was wanted; white, English books.
Success came when he wrote something much more himself, and then added a baby elephant, and there we were. The hook (he kept mentioning the need for hooks) for him was the first sentence: ‘On the day he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.’ I remember quite liking that.
You need to flex your writing muscle, and presumably that’s what those seven unwanted novels did. With less expectation when you are a new writer, you have the potential to exceed those expectations and that’s good for numbers, for publishers. You need a theme, as well as a plot and characters. If you can write something that is the same – but different – as some successful books, that would be good. Comping is a thing. You will be compared to others, and hopefully a place will be found for you. Vaseem admitted to borrowing from the da Vinci Code (I will try to forgive him).
Another ‘magic ingredient’ is quality, which in Vaseem’s case is to attempt to write like Hemingway. Study your favourite style. Remember the hooks. Make sure you don’t say the police jeep has windows when it doesn’t, i.e. get your facts right. Ginger is not an ingredient for either Chopra or Vaseem (I might have to disown him after all).
Characters matter more than plot. Make sure you have some secondary characters, who are actually interesting. Consider what’s hot, or not. Psychological thrillers are in, as is cosy crime. Everyone wants to be Richard Osman. Or write Gone Girl. Vaseem loves Michael Connelly, but also admitted to basing Chopra on the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
On writing outside one’s own culture, Vaseem is all for it. (His book for next year is a standalone set in small town US…)
After a [very civilised] potty break, it was question time.
In a crime novel, every book plot needs to be finished. The characters can go on. And you should avoid saggy middles, which I gather is easier with an editor because they will catch anything that sags. For us older [sagging] forgetful readers Vaseem suggests adding reminders of what’s happened earlier in the book. (I thank you.) And female detectives are allowed to get things wrong, just like their male counterparts.
Vaseem likes events, both large and smaller ones. Anything that gets him out there to meet readers. You want book charisma to persuade people to want your book. Newsletters are the best way of selling yourself online. You are in control and can talk directly to fans who have chosen to be on your mailing list. Events are outside your control, but very good even so.
And for god’s sake, bring back Ganesh!!! (Those are my words.)