“What’s on your mind?” I asked once we’d sat down in my office.
“Well, it’s not exactly about class or about teaching. Is that OK?”
“That’s fine. What’s up?”
“You write mystery novels, don’t you, Dr. Kinberg?”
“I’ve written a couple,” I answered.
“Good. Then maybe you can give me some advice.”
“OK, well it’s just this. I’m writing a crime novel of my own and I could use some guidance.”
“I think it’s great that you’re doing some of your own writing!” I said. I meant it, too; I respect it a lot when people take on the challenge of writing a book. It’s not easy.
“Thanks,” Saul said. “Do you think if I tell you about my novel, you could give me some pointers?”
“I’ll be glad to try,” I said. “Let’s hear what you’ve got.”
Saul began a little nervously. “OK,” he said. “There’s this guy. Nobody knows it but he’s a vicious killer. He mostly goes after young girls. You know, teenagers.”
I wasn’t sure I liked where this was going but I didn’t want to interrupt Saul before he’d even gotten started, so I nodded in comprehension. Saul watched my face carefully and then went on. “There’s also this cop. He’s kind of burned out. You know – he’s seen too much. And he’s keeping this big secret. He hasn’t even told any of his ex-wives. So he drinks and he gets in trouble with his superiors all the time, but he’s really a good guy. What do you think so far?”
I sighed inwardly but I didn’t want to discourage my student, so I tried to think of a helpful, constructive way to put it. “Well,” I said, “you’ve certainly got an action-packed idea here. But – ”
“– that’s exactly what I’m going for, too!” Saul said excitedly. “In all the novels I read, there’s always a lot of blood, a lot of car chases, that kind of thing. That’s what the best crime novels have.”
“Um, let me ask you a question, Saul,” I had to interrupt him. “Which authors do you read?”
“Oh, all the best-sellers. They all have a lot of gore and tons of murders and things in them, so that’s where I got my idea.”
“I see. Have you read Michael Connelly’s latest? It’s called The Drop. And The Black Box is coming out later this year.”
“Um, no. I haven’t read his books. I’ve heard of him though.”
“Good. You may want to read some of his Harry Bosch novels. His Mickey Haller novels too. Those don’t all have crazy serial killers going after young teenagers but Connelly is a real best-seller.”
“Maybe, but what about that other guy – you know, the one who puts out book after book? He’s always got brutal killers – I mean seriously brutal ones. And his stuff always sells a lot. He’s not the only one either.”
“Here’s the thing, Saul,” I tried to explain. “The whole key to a good crime novel is an interesting mystery with well-developed characters. Good crime novels have solid plots too. And a good plot doesn’t need to be blood-soaked.”
“I guess not.” Saul looked a little unhappy, so I tried to encourage him a bit. “But you have two essentials already. You’ve got your murderer and you’ve got your sleuth. That’s a start. What you might want to do is read some other famous authors and see what they do with their characters. You might get some good ideas for where you can go with your own story.”
“Like who? I know you mentioned once that you really like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and some of those old writers, but those old-fashioned mysteries don’t interest me. They’re – I don’t know – not my thing.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Lots of very talented authors write the kind of novels you like better and the kind of novel I think you’re probably interested in writing.” I gave Saul a few names, like Sue Grafton, Jo Nesbø and Deon Meyer. “All of these authors write novels with action and suspense, but they don’t wallow in blood either,” I explained. “Maybe they’ll help you get an idea of how to develop your plot and characters a little.”
“OK,” Saul said doubtfully. “Do any of them write about vampires?”
Uh-oh. This was going to take more time than I’d thought.
“Saul,” I said carefully, “You don’t have to have vampires in a book to make it a good one.”
“But you should see how many vampire books are way up at the top of the charts.”
“That doesn’t make them good, though.”
“Maybe,” he said, looking even more doubtful.
“Look,” I finally said, “Why don’t you do this? Read a couple of the authors I’ve suggested. Then look back at your manuscript. Use your own voice and ideas and the lessons you learn from what you’ve read. That’ll be a good start.”
“You think so?”
“I do.” Maybe I was actually getting through to him.
“OK, then. I’ll do some reading. And here’s what else I’ll do. I’ll finish up my manuscript. I’m already on Chapter Ninety-Eight, where we’ve just learned that my cop – the one who drinks too much – is really a werewolf. He’s about to have this really epic battle with the killer. As soon as I’ve thrown in a few more missing girls and dismembered bodies I’ll send it out. I’ll bet it’ll sell a million! Thanks for your help, Dr. Kinberg.”
Saul left my office jauntily. The sad thing is, he’s probably right.
*Special thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading , who also co-hosts Fair Dinkum Crime, for the inspiration for this post. If you’re not actively following those blogs, you’re missing out. Seriously.