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Writing Crime Fiction—10 Years Later

libbyOur guest today is Libby Fischer Hellmann [1] who thirty-five years ago left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC, and moved to Chicago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Twelve novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. Her latest novel Jump Cut [2]—see the book trailer on Youtube [3]—can be pre-ordered at Amazon [2], for Kobo [4] and iBooks [5], and at Barnes&Noble [6].

The “new” publishing world has changed much of what we writers do or expect in promotion, distribution, and editorial guidance. Recently I became aware of how much it’s actually changed the way we write. This blog captures my thoughts on the matter.

Connect with Libby on her blog [7], on Facebook [8], and on Twitter [9].

 Writing Crime Fiction—10 Years Later

Some say the whole world is ADD today. I think it started—or blossomed—with hyperlinks. When I’m reading an article online, I’m often distracted by the hyperlink and click on it for verification or amplification. That has resulted in what could be called “Distracted Reading.”

Like distracted driving, it’s a problem. Our brains can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and our attention spans just can’t keep up. The Pew Research Center agrees [10]. In a recent survey of almost 2,500 teachers, 87% felt modern technologies were creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” And a 2012 article in the Australian Financial [11] quotes neuroscientists who say that technology is affecting our brains, our feelings, and our self-image, sometimes in negative ways.

That has infected novel reading as well. True confession: as a reader, I used to give an author fifty pages to capture my interest. Then it went down to twenty. Today it’s only a few pages before I’m off to the next “bright and shiny” object, er—book.

It’s no surprise that changes in reading habits have affected the book market and marketing. For example, until recently, Amazon “rewarded” shorter works via their Kindle Unlimited program, which paid authors when a mere ten percent of their book was read. That led some authors to produce very short books so that the ten percent minimum was met by just a few pages. While that’s now been addressed (at least for the moment) by Amazon’s new Pages-Read system, the paradigm has inevitably led to changes in writing fiction itself. At least for me. The way I wrote my thirteenth novel was substantially different than the way I wrote my previous twelve.

1Revjumpcut copy 2Shorter Chapters

For one thing, I’m writing shorter chapters. That means “James Patterson short.” I used to include at least two scenes in each chapter. No more. Now it’s one scene per chapter, and based on the reviews and honors on Nobody’s Child, which was the first time I tried it, short was a good move. For some reason the shorter the chapter, the deeper the suspense. Readers told me they couldn’t read just one. They HAD to keep reading. So thanks, Mr. Patterson.

Shorter Length, Fewer Subplots

The length of the novels I write has been pared down as well. My new thriller is the shortest novel I’ve written, clocking in at about 70,000 words. Previously, my novels were 90-100K words each. Part of that has to do with subplots. I used to have a subplot in every novel, but I didn’t include one in the new one. Partly that was because of the complexity of the main plot, but part of it was by design. I wanted the book to move.

Condensed Narrative

I’m becoming stingier with my narrative too. Whether I’m describing a setting, a character, or an action, I try to keep it at about three or four concise sentences. However, the flip side is that the last sentence must somehow elevate the description so it says more than a reader expects. One of the best examples I can recall is from Raymond Chandler. It clearly isn’t new, and it’s actually five sentences, but in these days of “less is more,” you’ll get the point. This is taken from one of Chandler’s short stories, “Red Wind.”

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.

Novellas

I’m also writing more novellas these days. My readers seem to love them, and I enjoy writing them. Writing a 30,000 word story doesn’t seem as daunting as a full novel, and I find I can say pretty much the same thing as I would in a novel but more concisely.

The Biggest Change

The biggest change has come in detective tradecraft, where the technology of “detecting” has advanced almost beyond recognition. Of course, rapid-pace changes in policing have been happening since the Internet and cell phones arrived, longer than a decade ago. I remember how everyone was concerned when cell phones became ubiquitous, with the fear they would change detective novels. They have. But, happily, cell phones cause their own complications, like bad connections, lost calls, phones out of juice. More recently, crazy complex password protection, and burner phones cause their own obstacles. All of these make crime thrillers more modern and suspenseful.

Hacking has also caused widespread changes in crime-fighting tradecraft. Ten years ago, hacking existed, but it was nowhere as sophisticated and pervasive as it is now. In fact, it’s an industry. I couldn’t have told you what an ethical hacker was ten years ago. Today, there are hundreds of them, dedicated to finding hackers and evaluating the file encryption systems corporations use.

The ability to ferret out information has exploded, too. For example, work that used to take a full day or more can now be done in minutes. Who owns a specific piece of property or car… when taxes were last paid… background checks … all of that is available to the average citizen through public records that are now digitized. In most cases, writers have access to the same—or similar—information as law enforcement.

All this means we crime writers have to be tech-savvy and accurate. I can’t write about things I don’t know– so my research takes more time. I don’t mind. I love doing research. At the same time, I live in fear that someone will throw my book across the room with a comment like, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Still, the opportunity to write stories that readers respond to is a privilege, no matter what the style or format. So while my writing, and perhaps yours as well, has evolved and changed, my plots and characters haven’t. Hopefully the characters are still authentic and relatable, and the plotting credible. But readers are always the ultimate judge of that, aren’t they?

Has your writing changed in the past ten years? If so, how?