2004 – Lesson learned: Crime Writing Masterclass.

As it’s now National Crime Writing Week, I thought I’d reflect on when I think I really got the bug to read and write more crime fiction.

It would have been around 2004, most likely in the lead up to this event in fact, and the team of Minette Walters (no relative) and Mark Billingham.

What follows here is my review of the English PEN/Daily Mail Crime Writing Masterclass, held at London’s Olympia conference centre on 14 March 2004.

Apologies if you’ve read it before (it did do the rounds a bit at the time in Ottakar’s crime fanzine, The Verdict, on Deadly Pleasures website and on Minette Walters’ website but, here it is again anyhow as a reminder to myself of just how I got hooked…

For me, the Crime Writing Masterclass with authors Minette Walters and Mark Billingham was one of those “I’ll probably kick myself if I don’t go and see what it’s like” kind of events. It meant the best part of a Sunday away from the family, an afternoon fighting my way to the Olympia conference centre on various forms of public transport, and a nice soaking courtesy of our glorious British weather.

But, the evening I made the decision to tap my credit card details into the order form to purchase my ticket, I had a feeling the £35.00 ticket price would be a very worthwhile investment and, I’m pleased to report, I was right.

The Crime Writing Masterclass was one of three (the other two being Screenwriting for Cinema and Writing for Television) scheduled as part of the London Book Fair and sponsored by English PEN and the Daily Mail. Peter Guttridge, author and crime fiction critic of the Observer, chaired the discussion, and he did a fine job of keeping the conversation flowing and the event within its three defined sections.

Before entering the hall, everyone was presented with a hardback edition of Sleepyhead – Mark’s first Tom Thorne novel – and a paperback edition of a Minette novel of their choice, plus a pack of notes and the latest copy of ink magazine.

The first section of the class took the shape of a Q&A between Guttridge and Mark and Minette – during which probably no more than a handful of questions were actually asked, with the remainder of the time taken up with interesting tales, anecdotes and advice from both authors.

Minette spoke of her years as a volunteer prison visitor and of one visit in particular that helped her pin down exactly how the character of Olive Martin should be realised on the page in The Sculptress. She was full of encouragement for young, as she put it, “about-to-be” writers rather than “wannabe’s”, and she offered specific advice, such as “go through your writing and take out two of every three adverbs and adjectives! Why say tabby cat when cat will do just as well?”

Both Minette and Mark spoke of their writing techniques and differences in their style. Whereas Mark’s novels feature a series character – Tom Thorne – Minette’s novels are all stand-alone books. They acknowledged the advantages and disadvantages to both styles. While series novels can gather a regular, loyal readership, they risk alienating new readers that might not want to jump into a series in the middle. And, while stand-alone books offer an author more latitude, they, too, carry a risk, since they don’t have a guaranteed fan base for a series character.

On the subject of how they start a book, again, both authors differed in their approach. Whereas Mark always has the theme and an idea of the ending scene of his novels in his head when he starts out, Minette stated that she preferred the “unknown” route. She used an example of driving from London to Glasgow: “When you leave London, there are a hundred different ways to go; by the time you get to Birmingham, there are 30 ways; by the time you reach the Scottish border, there are three; and when you get to the outskirts of Glasgow, it’s just straight in to the centre and you’ve reached the end.”

Minette said that when she’s writing a book, she wakes up every morning very thrilled because she wants to know where she is going next, as well as the reader. “If I knew the route in advance &I would be bored solid!” Mark, who is also a stand-up comic, put his wit to good use and told Minette that he hardly ever feels that way in the morning, so could she please call him and share her enthusiasm!?

After the Q&A session, the tutors gave the audience members some work to do during the 30-minute coffee break. As part of this writing exercise, we had to choose from a series of atmospheric first lines and start a story. The lines included: “The body lay in the snow…”, “The gun never wavered…”, and “The door was half-open…”.

An added incentive was the fact that in amongst the audience were talent spotters from publishing houses and literary agents. I was amazed at the diversity of results that were read out from the same first lines, and the sheer volume of accomplished work that some of the audience members were able to produce in such a short space of time.

Everyone who wanted a few moments to read their work was given the chance to; anyone less than comfortable with public speaking had the added treat of hearing one of the published writers on stage reading their piece, provided they could decipher the handwriting! Following each reading, both Minette and Mark offered helpful and constructive comments and, on more than one occasion, asked if they could steal a particular idea!

Following on from the review of our writing, Peter Guttridge opened the floor to anyone who wanted to ask a question – anything from how much of a novel you should send to an agent to whether they thought it possible to write a modern crime story these days without using the pathology and post-mortem scenes that are so popular in modern crime fiction.

Upon leaving the auditorium, Minette and Mark sat outside in the main lobby and happily signed the free novels and chatted with individual audience members. This is where Minette gave me some very good advice. We both share the last name of Walters (no relation!), and she said it can be a “real bugger” because we’re always shoved at the very bottom of the crime section! She suggested I change it to Billingham to guarantee shelf space at eye-level!

This was an afternoon I am extremely glad I took part in and I would like to thank all involved for their enthusiasm and entertainment. It has certainly inspired me to write a lot more in the week since the event than I achieved in the four proceeding weeks; plus, I’m not kicking myself now!

Keith

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