I really enjoyed the following panels. This is a personal selection, based on what interests me as a reader and writer, and as a human being. I have tried to quote people accurately, and/or to convey the essence of what was being discussed but it will inevitably be a selective account.
Death in high heels: women as victims
The panel consisted of: MR Hall, Jessie Keane, Jessica Mann, Martyn Waites and Ruth Dudley Edwards as moderator.
This panel kicked off to a controversial start with Jessica Mann saying that the cover of a crime novel now has to have an image on it of a tortured woman. This sent a bit of a ripple through the audience. Jessica has written 21 crime novels and reviews them, so I assume she has some evidence for this statement but I’m not sure I think it’s true. Or perhaps it’s the word ‘torture’ that bothers me. Jessica said that levels of sadism and torture have increased in crime fiction. I think most of us would agree that this is true, overall, and I have noticed changes and trends in cover design but I don’t think they have necessarily changed in the same direction. A popular crime fiction cover is the ‘anguished woman’ on her own in a bleak landscape. I have seen dead female bodies on covers but I haven’t noticed this as a trend, or even that it is something particularly common. But, is a dead body on a cover that shocking? Okay, it might not be that subtle but we are talking about crime fiction after all.
In terms of convention it is often women who are victims in this genre. At a criminology lecture I went to a few years ago, given by Prof David Wilson, we were told that certain groups of people are often victims of violent crimes because they live on the fringes of society or under the radar. He said that they are often disempowered, voiceless and anonymous and therefore ‘easy’ targets. He cited prostitutes, the homeless and illegal immigrants as examples. Women as victims of real life crimes tend to attract attention when reported in high profile cases, for example, the Suffolk strangler. Other statistics tell us that young men are usually both the perpetrators and victims of violent crime. So, does fiction have to mirror society? Does it have a duty to be realistic? And, if it should portray reality, which reality? Do you read books to be thrilled, shocked, repulsed? For escapism and entertainment? Or to be made to think? Or does it vary? I know with my own reading I have definite moods, and often read a couple of books at a time to give me the variation I want.
Martyn said that it would appear that women don’t seem to mind violence given that more women than men read crime fiction. Jessie Keane said that her readers don’t have a problem with the violence in her books.
The panel then discussed whether the increasing violence does any harm, whether it depraves and corrupts. MR Hall says that he thinks it probably does, and that he is slightly squeamish about violence in his books. He said that what interests him is why women consume crime fiction when some of it is so violent. He said that it’s difficult to say what is and isn’t gratuitous in terms of violence. I agree with this. I’ve heard authors saying that it’s intrinsic to their plot or characterisation. And I’ve read crime novels where the violence has felt excessive and unnecessary. Interestingly, MR Hall said that he thinks that TV handles violence cleverly, that it often gets behind the violence. To some extent I think this is true, as it can show a victim’s life, personality and relationships – but then so can a novel. I think that some TV drama handles violent crime very well but I have noticed that some of it has become a bit sensationalist and thrill-seeking. I turned off a couple of episodes of Silent Witness in the last couple of years as the first few scenes had half a dozen or so murders, all shown in quite a graphic way. To me it felt like shock tactics.
Martyn mentioned that he’s based a couple of his plots on real crimes, citing embryo stealing and cannibalism. I wonder if this makes a difference to how a book is perceived?
One of the panel members said – and I didn’t make a note of who – that if violence is well written it is literature and if it’s badly written it’s torture porn. Initially this irritated me but when I thought about it I decided that in a way it is true: it’s all in the writing. For me, though, it’s not just that: I am bothered by the form that violence takes and what motivates it, also by how it’s framed and explained. For me, reading and writing crime fiction is about the exploration of what motivates people to commit hideous acts and how these acts affect both the person who’s committed them, and the victim and the people around them.
I had several questions I wanted to ask but in the end I didn’t ask any of them.
Entertainment or issues: does a crime novel have to have something to say?
This panel included: Simon Kernick, Michael Malone, Andrew Taylor, Robert Wilson and Sophie Hannah as moderator.
Sophie started off asking the panel whether the topic was something that they worried about.
Robert said yes, and that he likes to tackle issues head on but also in the spirit of a Noir novel: as entertainment. With regards to what comes first, Robert said that it was setting then characters then story then issues. He cited the example of his book set in W Africa, in which school girls are captured and sold to cure people of HIV/AIDS. Michael agreed that setting is important for him too and that often issues just ‘find’ him through that. Simon said that he doesn’t think about whether his books have anything to say. He just wants to write a good story which people will enjoy. Robert said that his readers don’t reach for his books for light entertainment, that he deliberately makes demands on them.
Discussion then moved to whether issues can be part of the story. Sophie gave the example of Murder on the Orient Express which she says has two messages: that the seemingly impossible sometimes isn’t impossible, and that the murderer isn’t always the most guilty person.
Andrew said that for him his process starts with setting then story then a title, and that questions and themes emerge. He said that for one of his books it was: could someone like me kill, and if so, under what circumstances? (Perhaps also, could I kill, and if so, in what circumstances?) He said that in his first book, the Anatomy of Ghosts, he wanted to explore the various ways we can be haunted and by what.
Next came discussion of whether readers can take against a book which overtly ‘has a message’, or which someone perceives to have a certain message. Sophie referred to how it can be a strange experience when someone says, ‘Oh, you’ll like this book because it’s about x’ when this is just their opinion, especially when you read it and don’t think it’s saying the same thing at all.
Next came discussion of whether readers make assumptions about authors based on gender. Simon said that he thinks there is a perception that female authors write about issues in more depth. This led on to discussion of whether how a book is marketed can hinder it sometimes, for example, if it’s marketed as a thrill-a-minute read, it might not receive literary acclaim.
Sophie said she wondered whether all crime novels ask moral questions, along the lines of ‘Is this a good guy with some bad points or a bad guy with some good points?’ This is similar to the idea that most behaviour – and people? – are morally ambiguous. The panel discussed how the topic of moral ambiguity can be floated via the use of a ‘What if?’ question as the starting point for a story. Both Sophie and Andrew said that they liked using these.
Nicci French and Lars Kepler: when two pens are better than one
This included: Sean French, Nicci Gerard, Alexander Ahndoril, Alexandra Coehlo Ahndoril, with Maxim Jakubowski as moderator.
This is the second time I’ve seen Sean and Nicci talking about writing together, and I find them both fascinating to listen to: warm, open and funny. It would be easy to think that they were always going to end up collaborating as they went to the same university and studied the same subject (but didn’t know each other). Then, when they were both working on the New Statesman, they used to read each other’s pieces and swap feedback.
Nicci said that she wanted to be clear that writing a novel with another person isn’t easier than doing it on your own. It’s not half the work, and although you have another person to share the highs and lows with, the actual writing process can be difficult. She said that their first book came about because they stumbled on the phenomenon of recovered and false memories and agreed that they had such a good plot idea that if they didn’t write about it, someone else would. This book became the Memory Game.
Alexander was writing mainstream books when he met Alexandra. She was an actress then and he ‘lured’ her into writing historical novels. They said they started collaborating to break the loneliness of writing. Alexandra says that they feel they owe a lot to Stieg Larsson, and that their name, Lars, is a tribute to him.
Something both couples agreed on was that it was important to have one name on the book cover, that two would be a distraction: the reader would wonder who wrote which sections. They also agreed that they have very different writing styles from their partners, and that they work hard to give their books a single voice which isn’t either of theirs, which is characterisitcally ‘Nicci French’ or ‘Lars Kepler’. Nicci said that how this comes about is a ‘mysterious act’, it’s ‘uncanny’. I’ve heard Sean and Nicci say this before and you get the impression that they genuinely don’t really know how it all comes together and that they are both slightly surprised (but pleased, obviously) that it does.
Both couples said that they each write separate scenes or chapters and then e-mail them to each other. Alexandra and Alexander sit side by side when they are writing, whereas Sean and Nicci work in different parts of the house: Sean in the shed at the bottom of the garden and Nicci in the attic. Nicci said that the ideas for their books come out of their marriage, and that they plan and plot their books together. Both couples referred to the need for trust between them, to drop egos and to believe that the other person, when changing work, will do so for the better. Nicci talked about how in their collaboration, they prod each other into areas they might not otherwise go, and that often what they end up with is very different from what they’d envisaged or planned.
Finally, they discussed how they switch off given that they work and live together. Nicci and Sean said that they don’t switch off really, that writing is their way of exploring things that they’re scared about. Alexandra said that they also tend to live, dream and think each book 24/7 but, because they have small children, they have a rule that the children are their priority.
Keeping us in suspense: thrills and chills
This panel had: Isabelle Grey, Penny Hancock, Claire Kendal, Robert Wilson, with Stav Sherez as moderator.
Stav introduced the topic by referring to Hitchcock, who he describes as the master of suspense, and to Hitchcock’s examples of the ticking bomb (suspense) and the bomb that explodes suddenly (surprise). Stav mentioned how crucial time is to suspense and asked the authors how they use time in their writing, and how they controll it.
Claire said that The Book of You spans eight weeks, and that this was a deliberate technique to control time. Penny said that the plot of Tideline ran over seven days. Isabelle said that she doesn’t think about chronological time when she writes.
Next, Stav asked whether suspense is a technical thing, or whether it stems from ‘character’ and from the reader having empathy with the characters. Isabelle said that there are ways of creating suspense by setting up questions to which the reader wants answers, and by doing this in a clever way, for example, by layering the questions. She gave the example of the question ‘Is x going to happen to y?’ and how it becomes more interesting if the question is ‘If x happens to y, how will y be affected and what might y then do?’
Claire said that she thinks that character, language and empathy all intertwine to create suspense. Stav mentioned how suspense can be created by unsettling the reader’s expectations. Robert said that he has multiple PoVs in his novels, and that he switches between them to create suspense much in the way that Stav suggested. Penny explained how in The Darkening Hour, she has a dual narrative and the reader doesn’t know who the goodie is and who’s the baddie. As the reader never knows who’s telling the truth, this creates suspense.
Discussion then turned to whether it creates suspense if the writer doesn’t know what is going to happen in the novel, that if the writer knows too much, does this ‘telegraph through’ to the reader? Claire said that she planned her novel out before she started writing. Robert said that he doesn’t plan before he starts writing, and Stav says that it takes him several drafts to decide who’s responsible for the crimes, that it takes him this long to decide what serves the story best.
Finally, in response to a question, the panel discussed how tense and PoV might affect suspense. Isabelle said that she always uses 3rd person. Claire used 1st and 2nd person PoV in The Book of You because she specifically wanted intensity and immediacy.
How to create suspense has to be one of my favourite topics in writing. I honestly could have listened to the panel discussing it for another hour.
Vicky Newham © 2014