Thursday, February 2, 2012

How To Write A New York Times Best Selling Crime Novel

Try to be as pretty, hollow, manufactured and safe as possible
1. Write about America. If you want your book to be a hit then it's going to have to be set in America or about Americans in trouble overseas. American readers largely don't care about the rest of the world and don't buy books set in places they can't easily understand. Publishers know this and encourage it and won't publish your book unless your locale conforms with an easy to grasp set of stereotypes. The exceptions prove the rule. Nordic crime fiction is hot right now because the image of Scandinavia is easy to grasp: snow, Ikea, Volvos, attractive people speaking with a cute accent. English period mysteries are also always in vogue because again we've got attractive white people in lovely costumes. Very occasionally a mystery from say Africa (The Ladies Detective Agency) will break through but crucially those books are written by a nice safe Scottish man. 
2. Write about the rich. American society is aspirational. The rich are envied, but the poor are hated. No one wants to read a depressing mystery novel about people in trailer parks struggling to get by or worse about black people in some housing project in the South Bronx.
3. Move to Brooklyn Heights. Your debut novel has no chance of getting reviewed in the NYT unless you live in Manhattan or Brooklyn Heights.
4. If you are man grow a hipster goatee. If you are a woman try to be very pretty.  Why? See rule #3 above. 
5. Write about a lawyer. There are two big misconceptions that propel books about lawyers to the top of the best seller lists: 1) lawyers are more intelligent than the average citizen and 2) lawyers mostly work in criminal law. Neither of these is true but editors and readers think they are. 
6. Your lead character should be a rebel, but a completely safe rebel who doesn't question the status quo. 
7. Don't try to be funny. Funny is very difficult and hard to pull off. Better to play it straight and occasionally slip in the odd gag here and there. Saying that though irony plays well. Post irony plays even better. Ironing however is passe. 
8. Have a twist a third of the way into the book and again four pages from the end. Doesn't matter what the twist is or how ridiculous it is, this is what the punters want so this is what you must give them. Everyone will mention the twist in the review. 
9. Don't criticise the status quo. I'm serious about this one. If you start bad mouthing The New York Times or big American corporations or doubting the stereotypes that everyone believes in you are in big trouble and your book won't find a publisher.  
10. Make it very clear in your letter to potential agents/publishers that this is only book 1 of at least a 12 part series. Publishers will not invest a dime in you unless they see the words FRANCHISE or SERIES emblazoned on your forehead. In other words DO NOT kill your character at the end of the book. Good Luck!

68 comments:

speedskater42k said...

Now that you've got the formula, will your next book be a "A New York Times Best Selling Crime Novel"?

By the way, I'm an exception to Rule 1, since I'm an American who DOES care about the rest of the world and who buys books set in places I don't get at all (listening to Tea Obreht's "The Tiger's Wife" and I've no idea about the area in which it's set).

seana said...

Or you could be British and write about a crime that happened after the marriage in a classic novel of a couple hundred years ago.

Or you could BE American and pretend to be British and write crime novels about the British upper classes ala Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes or Deborah Crombie.

Or you could defect to television and write a non-Brooklyn series like The Wire.

Or you could just be Janet Evanovich, and write a funny crime series set in working class New Jersey that works very well for the first ten books or so.I don't think anyone ever told her, Enough with the jokes, although maybe they should have at some points.

adrian mckinty said...

Speedskater

I'm very much of the do as I say not as I do school of thought.

I read the Tigers Wife and liked it.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah but you can't teach funny can you? Or at least I dont think you can. You're just born with it. Janet Evanovich, Carl H. etc.

seana said...

I'd say born in it, more than born with it. There's an aspect of it that's passed down.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah could be right about that. Its a family thing. Or a reaction to an unfunny family like Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce.

seana said...

Yeah, I suppose that last might be even more the case with the greats. Although I suppose it's always true that you get some kind of initial response to the joking around and it kind of grows from there.

Matt said...

I was reading a book about Charles Willeford and it says if he could write a best-seller about the Miami upper crust or a book about a fry cook which would be guaranteed to fail, he would sit down in front of his typewriter and start writing about eggs.

seana said...

Elmore Leonard is another bestseller writer who likes the working class as a subject. Or maybe the non-working class. Losers, anyway--not winners. He is also funny.

I should probably say at this point that I agree with your article in the main. Not only that, I found it funny.

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

And sometimes it doesnt fail. Did you ever read Post Office by Charles Bukowski? It only took forty years but eventually it became a best seller.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Indeed funny without trying too hard.

adrian mckinty said...

as an aside I think I prefer the 48 star US flag.

seana said...

I'm thinking Hawaii and Alaska may prefer that one too.

John McFetridge said...

I wonder if Elmore Leonard's diverse characters have anything to do with the fact he's 86 years old and may have a different view of the classes than a thirty-something who moved to Brooklyn?

I think, at least in novels, the American voice has become... well, let's say homogenous.

And, I wonder what a how-to list for writing a hit crime TV show or movie would compare with this?

seana said...

Just looked Leonard up--born in New Orleans, family moved frequently and has lived in the Detroit area for a long time.

Yeah, none of that is very hipster, is it?

Matt said...

I recently got in a bit of an argument with a buddy who is moving to New York to try and make it as a crime author. I think he wasn't sure what to say when I said I didn't think Nicholas Pileggi and Richard Price made their bones watching people at TGI Friday's.

I also told him he could move to Detroit and rent a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house for what he'd pay for a bachelor pad in Brooklyn, but it might be more than he bargained for. That was pretty much where the conversation ended.

On one last note on Willeford - after he wrote his most successful novel to date in the 70s, Cockfighter, he couldn't sell another book for 10 years.

adrian mckinty said...

John

He's not only lived a long life but from I've read in interviews Leonard is still intellectually curious and engaged in the culture.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah and not afraid to say what he thinks, although at 86 if you're are afraid to say what you think you've done something wrong.

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

You'd definitely got more life experience in Detroit but would you run into Chad Harbach or Jonathan Safran Froer at a party? Would you meet a girl who writes a column for New York magazine or who is best friends with Gwyneth Paltrow?

Its not really about the books at all is it? Its about being young and connected.

John McFetridge said...

Seana, I think it's interesting the way Elmore Leonard has moved backwards in time and linked together so many of his characters from his westerns ro his modern day novels. Makes a nice timeline for a particular part of Americana.

I also think it's funny how all through his career editors keep asking him to move his books away from Detroit (though I doubt Somalia or Oklahoma is what they had in mind) and he sometimes makes references to that in his books. One of the women in Mr. Paradise is a model and people keep asking her why she lives on Detroit onstead of New York and she says she loves to drive and hates traffic.

Anyway, novels are art right, and art is all about going against the flow, isn't it? Breaking rules? (most of what I say these days is to justify my own very, very poor sales). I think Matt is right, if I was a young guy and wanting to be a writer I'd look at places like Detroit and Rochester and anywhere that has some history but is out of fashion. One thing those Brooklyn hipster editors like to do is think they've discovered something new....

seana said...

John, you know that your sales are what they are because it's Canada and not America. Your cultural is largely incomprehensible to us. And don't get me started on the language.

One of my friends just died last month. I was at a touching bash for him on Saturday.He was about Leonard's age. He too remained intellectually curious and cantankerous right up to the end. I'm not sure they make 'em like these two anymore.

seana said...

Also, I think we should clarify to aspiring writers here that you can write anything you want about 'abroad' and get it published as long as it involves Navy Seals.

Peter Rozovsky said...

You could try being Swedish and being dead.
=======================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Richard L. Pangburn said...

I just now sent for a copy of John McFetridge's EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE. I've been meaning to do this for some time, but there are so many others jockeying for position on my to-be-read shelf.

The reason I had not read Irish Noir until "discovering it" (on-line at the Rap Sheet a couple of years ago), was that it really hadn't come to my attention before.

Not reviewed enough, or not carried enough by my local booksellers--or not hyped enough, you might say.

Same with Canadian crime authors to some extent. But what interests me most as a reader is GOOD WRITING about the human condition.

Life.
Candle burning.
Wind coming.

That's the human condition. We know, if we think about it, that all candles eventually burn out, though the flame is passed. We live in constant denial of that fact, while in fear, often hysterically, the potential storms that may snuff out our lives prematurely. We identify with that tenson when we see it, if only subconsciously.

On the surface, the novel may concern topical politics, poverty and class issues, love, sex, crime, or whatever, but underneath it better be aware of the greater human condition.

Lawyers write some good books--lawyer Stephen Greenleaf wrote an excellent blue-collar detective series before he called it quits--but so do philosophy, literature, and history majors.

Clancy Martin, author of my best-book-of-the-year 2009, HOW TO SELL, was a philosophy major.

I'm reading an ARC of ex-lawyer John Burdett's VULTURE PEAK right now and, still in the crucial first fifty pages, the writing carries the day and the foreshadowing makes me think that this, the fourth in the series, will indeed be a gem. I'll be reviewing it in a day or two.

seana said...

Richard, I read How to Sell just recently and loved it.

Although I can never look at Jewelry Television in exactly the same way.

Haven't heard anything new on the Clancy Martin front. I hope he wasn't one of the ones who got discouraged.

adrian mckinty said...

John

Yeah I love that too. I tried to do the same by having a character from my kids book The Lighthouse Keepers appear in Falling Glass which therefore linked 7 of my books together, but, alas nobody noticed. Or cared.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah Navy Seals travelling the world, meeting interesting people and killing them. And then presumably banging their wives or sisters.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, I've just read (and posted about) McFetridge's new novel, Tumblin' Dice. McFetridge rules. And Canadian snack food is better than Scandinavian, too. I mean, Montreal bagels vs. lutefisk? It's not much of a contest, man.
============================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

adrian mckinty said...

Richard

Yes. Didn't Nietzsche say that the whole edifice of Western Culture was all an attempt to make us not think about death for a little while. Camille Paglia thinks that the entire edifice of Western Culture is more about sexual display. I'd say that sex and death about covers most of it. Grief too as an aspect of death or loss.

I suppose that's why it's such a skill if you can make someone laugh. For those two or three seconds of laughter you're in another place.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

And thats something John really knows how to do: make you laugh.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I may do another post about humor and about some of the techniques by which I think Tumblin' Dice does what it does. It's an earlier contender for best of 2012 list.

seana said...

You can't write these interesting links and clues for contemporary readers. You have to wait till someone does their thesis or doctorate on your books. Don't worry, they'll find them.

Nietsche and Paglia are a nice duo. Reductionists, but they do get the ball rolling. I wonder if they would have liked each other.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Nietzsche and Paglia were a good duo, but I like their solo stuff better.

seana said...

I like neither of them, but I have to say I haven't immersed myself in either of their work.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't put much stock in NYT bestseller lists as they are not always indicative of quality reads. Unfortunately it sees to be a significant component to a writer's career. I read all over the place and so care about what's going on in the rest of the world, prefer my crime fiction set outside the U.S. But Irish crime fiction will be picking up soon if it hasn't already as I think that's the next area to be super hot after the Scandi-lit wave.

Elise

shullamuth said...

Funny, reading this post I realized that though I read a lot of crime fiction, I'm not a crime fiction reader.

I'm really addicted to a sense of place when I'm reading for pure pleasure. Character growth is a close second, but I really like the feel of being introduced to a specific environment's inner nature.

What I love about well written crime fiction is the way the protagonist's intimate relationship with his or her city shapes who they are and how they act upon their world.

You can say this should be true of any setting, but the life and death centered conflict allows for a more explicit exploration of a city's and a protagonist's soul.

I recently read/reread a mountain of Chandler and that's really what I came away with-- The heat-and-mist-and-easy-chisels-LA and how every time Marlowe was looking at a big pay day he hands the money back to keep his integrity in the face of it.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Thanks for the tip on TUMBLIN DICE, Peter. I've added your blog to my list and I've now ordered TUMBLIN DICE too.

We caught Anne Patchet on the Colbert Show last night, and she was touting her bookstore in Nashville, saying that the chains had closed and that big city was without a decent bookstore until Parnassus Bookstore opened.

We found that hard to believe, but we enjoyed her sense of humor. I may have to order her new book too--or maybe my wife will.

As tough as things are for authors and booksellers, good books still abound. I'm grateful for the day.

swooperman said...

So what about if you kill your main character off at the end of book 1, get his brother or someone to takeover & then do a further 11 books as a ghost story? Could start a new trend as a genre change every few books to get new readers? No? Nor me lol
Regarding the Swedish & dead comment from Peter, it brought me to an oft thought point of mine, that with the amount of publishers & agents that specify they wont touch rape, I wonder if they realise that they'd have missed out on the supposed literary phenomenon of our times. Not, I hasten to add, that I'm trivialising rape

Tim Gamble said...

Write a best seller in America and a classic.

1. Hard drinking, bachelor PI
2. Take job from uber rich man or woman
3. Get involved with beautiful relative of client
4. Muck through the depraved moral shenanigans of the rich
5. Dump rich relative after she proves to be worst of the lot
6. Solve crime, take a hot shower.

seana said...

Richard, no, I believe Ann Patchett about why she opened the bookstore. Working in a long struggling independent as I do, which, quite miraculously survived the onslaught of both Crown and Borders, I couldn't tell you how many out of towners come to our store from various parts and tell us that with the demise of Borders, they have no bookstore anywhere near.

Kate said...

Is NYC really the cultural mecca it thinks it is? How many people can even afford half of its attractions?

I used to read the trivial sections of the Sunday NYT - Travel, Arts& "Leisure" - until I finally had to concede that I just wasn't the target audience. And the NYT book critics seem to go for novels where the characters are affluent professionals with advanced degrees.


I tried to read a John Banville crime novella and I was unimpressed. Maybe I'm a cultural Visigoth but when I found out it had been serialized in The New Yorker I thought, "No wonder it kind of sucked."

I'm drawn to novels where the people remind me of me: the depressed Jar City detective living on frozen dinners; the guilt-ridden Fegan of The Ghosts of Belfast. I'm probably a narcissist but I need stories that are somehow instructive and affirming.

And Daniel Woodrell can be so damn funny.

P.S. I'm with shullamith re: sense of place, which is something the NI crime writers are especially great at.

HoldenCaufield said...

This is about the most depressing blog yet, Adrian, because it cuts to the chase and is so true. What the heck happened to the NYTs and to the US? I find it very sad.

-- cheryl

lil Gluckstern said...

Since I can't travel the world, and undo the years I was raising kids, and going to school, and working, I am catching up on history and going places I can only dream about. I love books written about LA that aren't about Hollywood, and I have an addiction to Scandinavian and Irish fiction. Right now, I'm in Greece, which is surreal given what is going on there. Books teach me and transform me, and I try to buy as much as I can. I'm a little um-skeptical. I remember Brooklyn when it wasn't so attractive. I t became like that as a reaction to Manhattan prices. bottom line, I rarely read NYTimes best sellers. Franzen bores me, Foer-I don't know. Sometimes, these books feel very self indulgent to me. I'm old enough to ead what I want, not what I should :)

Peter Rozovsky said...

Tim, you could

7_ Have your PI look in the mirror and not like what he sees.

adrian mckinty said...

Elise

The NYT bestseller lists are certainly not an indication of quality but they usually are an indication of a writer's ability to support herself purely through writing. If you wanna quit the day job its good to make the list.

adrian mckinty said...

Shulla

The exploration of a city and a character are keys for me too. The really good crime novels have a keen sense of place.

adrian mckinty said...

Richard

Its always amazing when they have any kind of an author on a chatshow instead of a Kardassian or whoever.

adrian mckinty said...

Swoop

His ghost solves the crimes and the ghost rides a flaming motorcycle from hell.

adrian mckinty said...

Tim

The key is wealth there if you want to shift units. But give me a Jim Thompson novel about down at heel grifters any day.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The death of Borders in Melbourne too has left a void which has not easily been filled.

adrian mckinty said...

Kate

The travel section of the NYT is excuse my French such a fucking joke. Talk about being aspirational. Clearly they feel they are in competition with Conde Nast Traveller to appeal the richest people in the East Coast. You have to be seriously well heeled to go to any of the places they recommend. When they came to Melbourne they recommended you stay at the most expensive hotel in the city and dine at its most exclusive (and worst) restaurants.

adrian mckinty said...

Cheryl

As the world got bigger and more connected it also got smaller and more insular.

adrian mckinty said...

Lil

Self indulgent, spoiled, privileged, cut off from real world issues and problems....

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

He has to look in the mirror and not like the look of the man he has become.

adrian mckinty said...

Interesting tid bit about Cormac McCarthy:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/21/cormac-mccarthy-scientific-copy-editor

Liz Fielding said...

Hilarious!

Oops, sorry, funny does fly...

Peter Rozovsky said...

But something about him somehow attracts women. Or repels them. Or both.

seana said...

For Swooperman's story, he could see his own ghost. Or maybe he can't see himself at all anymore, because he's not the man he was.

I liked Franzen's piece in the New Yorker about Edith Wharton very much. It's funny, because he was writing about how difficult we may find to empathize with her due to her place of privilege. Frankly, though, I've never found it hard to empathize with her or admire her.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Its always amazing when they have any kind of an author on a chatshow instead of a Kardassian or whoever.



Craig Ferguson's show is about as silly as the others, but the guy must like crime fiction. He's had Ken Bruen, Stuart Neville, Lawrence Block and Laur Lippman as guests. Neville even got a nice, long time to talk about his work, quite possibly because Ferguson had just bought a movie option for The Ghosts of Belfast.

L.H. Thomson said...

A third of the way in for the first twist. Gotcha.

Is it crass to troll for what sells? I'm going to go take a shower now. (Then again, I also enjoyed Scott's ambivalent "Is Deckard a replicant" cut, too.)

McFetridge should write a crime novel about football, get some free swag off TFC.

Anonymous said...

You haven't actually listened to Lana Del Rey, have you? You're getting old, man.

swooperman said...

I've gone off my story, Nicholas Cage would be getting confused with too many roles to play

seana said...

Wait a minute--Cage has already paged twins--how hard could it really be for him to add a few more roles?

swooperman said...

Okay, I'll settle for it as long as Amber Heard's involved again.....

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Re: Cormac McCarthy editing Lisa Randall and Lawrence M. Krauss

Interesting tidbit, yeah, but we wish he'd get back to work on his novel that is completed (some of us have read it) yet not released to his editors. Beats me. He may be holding it back for his son to release at his death. Meanwhile, he has that screenplay that Scott Ridley is directing.

On the backstory of SUNSET LIMITED he talks with Jones and Jackson a bit, and one of the things he says is that he wrote his Beckett-like play when he was in Ireland, rambling around an old house by himself, getting plenty of work done.

Elsewhere I've heard that McCarthy went there to do historical and genealogical research and I'm wondering what else he was working on.

McCarthy seems lately to have been reading David Eagleman's excellent INCOGNITO: THE SECRET LIVES OF THE BRAIN, as he and Gell-Man and Sam Shepherd are all quoted on the great role the subconscious plays in science as well as writing.

On the subject of this thread, McCarthy has said that he believes that the choice should not be between quality or commercialism, but that good riding bridges the gap, is all inclusive, that one story should be all stories.

adrian mckinty said...

Richard


I read one of those Lisa Randall books and let me tell you if that was the book post Cormac McCarthy's editing then the manuscript must have been a real disaster before.

Isabelle said...

Sad but true Adrian! Love reading your books and blog, big fan.

Isabelle

adrian mckinty said...

Isabelle

Thanks for that!