The Crime Writers' Association

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‘Three pieces of writing advice I’ve never forgotten’ by Helen Cooper

For years, I’ve been collecting writing tips from wherever I can get them. While I was trying to get published, and after I succeeded, my addiction to studying the craft of writing never went away. But there are three particular gems of advice that have always stuck with me, and that I still remind myself of when I’m working on a book …

1. “What is your reader waiting to find out?”
This was said to me by my dissertation supervisor, the novelist David Belbin, during my Master’s in Creative Writing. I remember him encouraging me to ask this question of every chapter I wrote, and I’ve done it ever since. Sometimes readers might be waiting for answers or information; sometimes they’re waiting with bated breath to see what will happen in a scene. But they should always be waiting for something.

The more I’ve written, though, the more I’ve also realised you can’t endlessly string out everything: you have to offer some answers and resolutions along the way. But if your overarching mystery is enthralling enough, readers will keep anticipating, keep turning the pages… The next crucial trick is not to disappoint them once the waiting is over!

2. “Unsettle your reader”
This was a nugget I took away from a Masterclass in writing suspense fiction, taught by the thriller writer Lucie Whitehouse. She advised, “Unsettle your reader at every opportunity!” How simple, and yet brilliant, is that? Immediately, I started thinking about the scenes and descriptions in my book, The Downstairs Neighbour, and how I could inject them with a greater sense of unease. But I also discovered how it can work in a wider sense. You can unsettle your readers by wrongfooting them, by continually overturning their assumptions about your story or your characters, so they’re never quite sure who or what to believe. Daphne Du Maurier is an absolute master at this. And for a writer, I’ve found, it’s a lot of fun!

3. “Raise the stakes”
This one came from my agent, the super-wise Hellie Ogden. She always encourages me to raise the stakes in terms of what my characters have got to lose. I’ve learned how important this is, but also how easy to lose sight of. Now, when I’m writing about characters with secrets, or suspicions about others, I keep in mind an important question: “How bad will it be for them if their secret is discovered, or if they find out this thing about someone else?” And the answer, ideally, should be very, very bad!

You can read more about Helen Cooper and her books here.

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