Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Timely Talk: Leigh Russell on How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Venue: The Society of Authors, 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB.

How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Exploring techniques for sustaining a reader’s interest

Hosted by Leigh Russell
Dates: Tuesday 23 October or Wednesday 24 October
Time: 11am - 4.30pm

About Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell is the author of a bestselling series of crime thrillers Cut Short (2009), Road Closed (2010) Dead End (2011) and Death Bed (2012). Stop Dead will be published in 2013. Cut Short sold out six times in it first year and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association New Blood Dagger Award for best first novel. Leigh’s subsequent books sold equally fast and all went on to become international bestsellers, in the Top 50 Bestsellers List on amazon and the Top 50 Bestsellers Chart for WH Smith’s Travel. Leigh’s work has been very well reviewed including in The Times (UK) and the New York Journal of Books (US). Leigh is an experienced teacher of creative writing.

This  newsletter item caught my eye just  as I thought about signing up for NaNaWriMo, 'National Novel Writing Month', starting on November 1st. (Later blogs will be about that) . I've been to one of Leigh's talks in the past, so decided to give it ago. There's always something new to learn, I think, and I wasn't disappointed.

Topics covered included:  setting; characters; plots; pace; planning and editing. This summary is a poor representation of the amount of information and I’ve left out many names of masters of the genre, although they were frequently menioned. Main points were demonstrated with examples that Leigh read from her own books. We also did two very interesting writing exercises to illustrate how to change the pace and how to create a character.

Crime fiction is an excellent example for ‘popular’ fiction because the reader needs are always foregrounded. Crime stories ask a question or questions at the start of the narrative journey and by the end the reader expects an answer, but the trick is not just to grab the readers’ attention but to keep them reading. The tropes and conventions of the crime novel –for instance, a potential victim walking down a deserted street at night - were discussed, along with skill of subverting expectations to keep readers interested.  

Authenticity is important in a crime novel because by making the setting authentic the reader is led to accept the unusual or even bizarre happenings that will occur.  Events need to be rooted in fact, and aspects such as police procedures need to be accurate. Leigh said she’d found official bodies helpful,  especially since awareness of public image is high. When approached by email, experts were always co-operative.

It’s in the nature of crime novels to require planning and various methods of structuring were touched on, such as moveable post-it notes, plotting as for a theatrical play, the ‘snowflake’ method, mind-maps, linear forms that include a time-line or calendar, and chapter lists. Planning, says Leigh, can be done away from the desk – pondering how to dispose of a dead body while standing in a check-out queue is the norm for a crime-writer. Thinking about writing, according to Leigh, is often the most creative and important part – the writing itself mere ‘secretarial’.

It’s important to vary the pace in a crime story; too much excitement becomes unbelievable. The ‘saggy middle’ must be avoided, perhaps by bringing forward the climax of a sub-plot. Agatha Christie famously claimed that when she wrote one of her novels she didn’t herself know until the end who was the killer,  but that would be the exception. Clues and false trails need to be laid down in advance.  

The theatre is a good training ground for crime writing (|I was pleased to hear) because everything is so dramatic; it mimics  crime fiction’s need to keep the reader excited .The success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, for instance, was down not so much to the quality of the writing as to the ‘hook’ in every chapter. Writers for weekly papers, such as Dickens, recognised the important of having a ‘cliff-hanger’ at the end of every episode

Creating believable characters can be achieved in a number of ways, such as creating a ‘backstory’ or dossier for the main one. It’s practical in case of need for changes later but not necessary for minor characters. Writing a series is good because a writer can build on a detective’s existing fan base.

When planning a series, it’s important to think about a main detective with his/her strengths and flaws. How to disguise the villain can be a crucial point - the charming psychopath, for instance.   Methods of showing characters include behaviour, dialogue, appearance and interaction; they can also be introduced through police interrogation or gossip from the other characters.

Motivation raised questions about what kind of person became a killer – whether temporarily motivated, as in someone crazed with grief, or possessing the more entrenched traits of a psychopathic serial killer.
Other topics rising from questions were covered, such as how to find an agent, dealing with rejection, editing, deadlines and self-motivation. The current challenges for the publishing industry in the ‘post-literate’ age and the rise of e-books were keenly debated.
Part of the pleasure of attending a study day at Drayton Gardens is the chance to meet and talk to other writers, to hear their input in discussion and  to engage in conversation in the lunch break.  During lunch I discussed Hitchcock’s films with one member, South African novels with another and how to find a Director for a children’s musical with a third. (If anyone can help, please get in touch)



  1. Really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing. I seem to be doing some things right after all....and I spend a lot of time thinking! I never know who is going to be the villain in my stories until the person arrives on the I am as surprised as I hope my readers will be when I get round to completing my novels. Appreciate this article, thanks again and good luck to you too.

  2. The other great thing about crime writing is that it is currently one of the most popular genres. In 2011 crime dominated the top ten library loans and agents are actively seeking out crime novels. Good Luck with yours, Sheila!