Four Things I Learned While Writing Crime Fiction
After a tour in Iraq, which had him conducting security for EOD missions, supply runs, and anything else the military asked of him, Zack Klika got out and went to college at The University of Texas Dallas. He graduated in 2010 with a B.S. in Finance. It was around this time he decided that writing was what he really wanted to do, not numbers. In this article, he talks about the four biggest pieces of advice he learned about writing crime fiction by working with professional editors.
My new novel, Blood On The Bridge, is about three very different people banding together to figure out who murdered a female soldier. And much like the characters in my book, I teamed up with two amazing editors, Will Anderson, my developmental editor, and Mary Beth Constant, my copy editor, to get my novel in tip top shape.
Writing a novel is no easy task. I outlined for a month and then wrote the first draft in two, at which point I knew I needed to get professionals involved. Will had so many great comments and suggestions about my manuscript that it energized me when the time came to dive back in for a rewrite. Mary Beth spotted a great many inconsistencies in my story’s timeline and overall story arc. Without her, the novel would have come off as amateurish. They both returned my edits before the due date we had agreed upon as well, which made me feel even more confident in the Reedsy platform.
Here is some of the advice I picked up during the writing and editing process, regarding creating a great thriller novel.
1) Embrace the tropes
There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling like your mystery or thriller rings similar to a lot of other crime fiction. However, there are ways to make your scene feel more original than it really is. The best piece of craft advice I ever received actually wasn’t related to writing. It was given to me during an improv class. My instructor told the group to throw away the first three ideas that popped into our heads when we walked onto the stage to perform a scene. And it always worked. It forces your imagination to scramble for something that wasn’t already there. And when you’re faced with no way out, you will find a way out. It’s how a lot of writers write: they paint themselves into a corner and then find a way out.
There is a scene in my novel where one of the main characters is knocked out and thrown into the trunk of a car. He wakes up in the trunk and realizes he is being driven to his death bed. So, what can he do when his kidnappers open the trunk? Fight or flight? Those are two options. He could also beg. Those were really the only three options I could think of. Later, when I was laying in bed trying to sleep, a fourth option came to me: he could play possum. And I’m sure I’m not the only one to ever write about a character playing possum in the trunk of a car on the way to his literal death bed. But regardless of how used of a trope it is, it was the option that absolutely fit my character best and not just the first thing I could think of.
Don’t forget to rely on your developmental editor as a source for great ideas, too, which leads me to the next part...
2) Run with your editor’s advice
Seriously. Take their ideas, advice, and feedback and run with it. They’ve probably read a lot more crime fiction than you ever will so they are the perfect person to tell you how to make your book better.
Authors tend to get tunnel vision while they’re working on their manuscript. Try your best not to be upset if your developmental editor tells you he or she doesn’t feel like a scene works in its current state. The main job of that editor is to critique your work. If they’re great editors, like mine were, they’ll throw out a ideas to improve the scene. Think about those ideas and use them as you see fit.
I knew something was missing from my book when I submitted it to Will. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but Will found it right away: I needed another red herring in my story. There wasn’t enough going on in the second act to sustain it through to the end. One of the ideas Will gave me was perfect and right in front of my eyes the whole time. I ran with it. And it ended up making my story all the more enjoyable. And you want to be entertained by your novel.
3) Use your senses
If you’re not entertained by your crime fiction, your reader won’t be either. I write mysteries and thrillers because I have a passion to entertain and I’ve always been entertained by a good crime story. Remember that your thriller or mystery is being told to someone, and they need to be brought into your make believe world. The best way to do that is through "show, don't tell" and by incorporating all five senses into your writing: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
After a first or second draft, I’ll go through my manuscript and see which of the five senses are lacking. Sight and sound get used the most in a lot of writing, which is perfectly fine. But smell, taste, and touch can be your sleuth’s/detective’s best friend and can make or break a case. Did your detective get a whiff of cologne off the murdered woman found in her apartment? Did he later smell that same cologne while interviewing a suspect? A great exercise I like to do is to write out a few ways a killer can be caught based off one of those three senses. It’s not easy, but that just means your story will be all the better for it. My next piece of advice will make your story better too.
4) Keep your action scenes loose and free-flowing
Don’t get too bogged down in being so precise with the details that your reader can’t fill in some blanks for themselves and immerse themselves in the story. If you’re writing within the realm of reality it may be a good idea to keep your fights on the shorter side as well, to build suspense. Real fights are nothing like boxing matches. Real fights are messy. Real fights are usually wrapped up within a few minutes. And real fighters fight dirty. Remember that. Your fighters don’t abide by any rules. They will do whatever they have to do to win a fight.
Please share your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Zack Klika in the comments below! And if you'd like to learn more about querying a thriller to an agent, head here.