Today I am absolutely delighted to have CWA Debut Dagger shortlisted author Helen Giltrow on the blog talking about her writing process and entering the Debut Dagger competition. This is a big competition in the calendar year for all aspiring crime writers and today is part one of a two-part article that Helen kindly wrote for the blog. I can’t thank her enough.
Helen Giltrow entered the CWA Debut Dagger competition with a very early version of her debut novel The Distance. She made the shortlist, and has since been published by Orion, with a second novel in the pipeline.
You were shortlisted for CWA’s Debut Dagger competition back in 2001. What made you enter in the first place?
I’d been writing for years and wanted to know if I was good enough to take it seriously. And I’d just come up with a new story that I really wanted to tell. Having a competition to enter gave me a focus and a deadline.
Entering was also great practice for later, though that didn’t occur to me at the time. The competition asks for the first 3,000 words of a crime novel, plus a synopsis – so, quite similar to most agents’ requirements. And just putting that package together forces you to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your work, which has to be a good thing. The Debut Dagger was my first attempt at submitting work for consideration, and just going through the process – drafting and redrafting the opening, and writing the synopsis – taught me a lot.
You had to submit the first 3,000 words of a crime novel. Did you already have a finished novel, or were you writing from scratch?
And you had the idea for the story already … So how did you start?
I was already a big fan of crime fiction and I’d been writing for years. But I realised I’d never tried to analyse what makes a good crime novel opening. So as an exercise I took all the crime novels off my bookshelves, put them in a big pile, and then read just the first page of each, one after another. Then I went into a bookshop, parked myself in the crime section and did the same. I learned loads from that, but principally: good crime novels establish themselves immediately – in the first paragraph, sometimes even in the first sentence. You know exactly what sort of book you’re reading. You feel the author knows what they’re doing. You may have no idea where you’re heading, but you feel you’re in safe hands.
For me, that immediacy is key. As a writer you sometimes find yourself thinking, ‘But I need to set the scene first.’ Well, yes, you do – but make it the most gripping or involving or mysterious scene you can. Opening at a crucial point in a character’s life – even if it’s not quite clear why it’s crucial – will allow your reader to get to know that character much faster than if they were simply posting a letter or making tea. Unless that letter’s a ransom demand, or the tea is poisoned …
What advice would you give to anyone who’s worried their opening’s a bit slow?
Experiment. Try reading your second paragraph, your second page, maybe even your second chapter as if it’s the opening. Be open-minded. Play around with all the options at your disposal. See which one works best.
One well-known UK editor once told me how she suddenly realised the manuscript she was reading really needed to start at chapter 3. She persuaded the author to cut the first two chapters. The result was a bestseller.
Hang on – I’m sure some writers reading this will think, ‘If I start with chapter 3, the reader won’t have the first idea what’s going on.’
It’s swings and roundabouts. As a crime reader I love it when an author plunges me into the thick of the action and forces me to work out what’s going on. It’s all part of the game. Here’s a mysterious death, or a strange happening – what’s it all about? Or someone’s running for their lives – why, and who are they? I like being made to work a bit. But it’s true, there’s a big difference between withholding a bit of information, and leaving the reader feeling confused or completely in the dark.
I guess the trick lies in telling the reader just enough to get their bearings. At the same time you don’t want to hold up the action while your characters deliver lengthy explanations. Dialogue is great for filling in backstory quickly where you need to.
I was once told: no flashbacks until you get to chapter 3. It’s a hard rule to follow, but just thinking about it tends to ensure I keep my story moving forward.
Any other ruses for creating a gripping opening?
If you’re concerned your main action starts too quietly but for narrative reasons you need to keep that quiet scene, you can always preface it with a flashforward to a later dramatic incident. The final version of my book The Distance starts at the end of the story – a woman with blood in her hair is determinedly lying to police officers; all we know is that a plan has gone terribly, terribly wrong, and someone’s died. Then the narrative flashes back twenty-five days to the very beginning of the story: the same woman, in a bar at London’s Royal Opera House, catches sight of a man she thought was dead. And the story moves on from there.
Jo Nesbo does something similar in his novel Headhunters: he opens with a flashforward to a car crash which actually belongs two-thirds of the way through the narrative. Was he cheating? Maybe … But it’s so compellingly written, I for one had to read on.
And if you can’t use the flashforward trick?
Hint that something important’s about to happen. Then make the reader wait. Right at the start of that Royal Opera House chapter I mentioned – before the reader knows anything at all about the scene – my main character says this:
I’ve always known the past might hunt me down, despite all my precautions, the false trails and the forged histories and everything else I’ve done to distance myself from it.
But not like this.
That opening left me free to set the scene – describe the opulent bar and this mysterious man who’s come back from the dead, and recount the conversation the woman tries to maintain as she tracks the man across the crowded room – knowing that at least some readers would keep reading, just to find out what was going on. Of course if you do this, you’ve effectively just made a promise to your readers, one you have to keep – by the end of the chapter they’ll expect you to have told them a lot more about your characters and their situation. But you were probably going to do that anyway!
What about the words? Any redrafting tips?
The ones that everyone gives! That every word must earn its keep. That strong nouns and strong verbs trounce pretty much every adjective and adverb going. And that controlling pace and sentence rhythm is really important. Length of words and sentences is the key to that.
Oh, and be aware of your writing tics. I’ve compiled a checklist of my bad writing habits, so I can root them out.
Next, we’ll talk about writing the synopsis. That will be next Tuesday 23rd December, so don’t miss it!
The 2015 CWA Debut Dagger competition closes on 31st January. Interested in entering? Click HERE to sign up for more information, including the Debut Dagger Bulletin.
The Distance by Helen Giltrow
Charlotte Alton has put her old life behind her. The life where she bought and sold information, unearthing secrets buried too deep for anyone else to find, or fabricating new identities for people who need their histories erased.
But now she has been offered one more job. To get a hit-man in to an experimental new prison and take out someone who according to the records isn’t there at all.
It’s impossible. A suicide mission. And quite possibly a set-up.
So why can’t she say no?