Want to know the secret to writing a great crime novel?

Tough, there is none, writes Paul Perry, who nevertheless supplies a few pointers

Can You Keep a Secret? is the name of Karen Perry's forthcoming novel. It is applicable to the content and action of the narrative of the novel but not to how it was written, or any other novel for that matter. Because there is no secret. No formula, no magic potion, and no short cut to what goes into the writing of a novel. And it doesn't matter what genre we are talking about. It doesn't matter whether the novel is a thriller, a mystery or a literary novel. Yes, that's right, the literary novel is a genre, too. Each genre comes with its own codes and conventions, but that does not mean there is a formula.

There's no soundbite. It's a messy business. Fluid, haphazard, with drafts, and drafts of wrong starts and cul-de-sacs along the way. And then some more

I state this clearly and place it to the fore because it’s the truth, and also because when I recently said the very same thing, and repeated it as clearly as I could, I was misheard, more than once. So I had to repeat it again: there is no formula for writing a thriller. This encounter when I was misheard occurred after a festival event quite recently. Another writer of a different genre, asked me to talk her through the process. Gosh, golly – how to do that, I thought? There’s no soundbite. It’s a messy business, I said. Fluid, haphazard, with drafts, and drafts of wrong starts and cul-de-sacs along the way. And then some more.

Start with character

So, I start with a character. The character wants something that he or she can’t have. You constantly ask the character, and the situation you land them in: why not? How not? Then the situation complicates itself, or rather you as the author must complicate that situation and your character’s relationship to what unfolds.

“My characters take on a life of their own.” Nonsense, thought Nabokov. Whoever says that is leading you down a rather romantic garden narratological path. Minor authors, or the insane, is how he saw people who offered such lip service to the craft. It’s part of the mythology of writing, which is made up of half-baked notions and untrustworthy testimony. I’m not sure I would have the same dictatorial ideas as Nabokov, but he was right that the author has ultimate control. They make the decisions, even if proposals are suggested by their creations. Not that the character is a pawn, but the author’s imagination has an agency and responsibility to create a truthful world.


Then you can add the setting, the relationships your lead character has with others, the backstory and their character traits. These are the kinds of things I said. I was prompted to elaborate. I tried, even if my interlocuter had not read Karen Perry's other novels, The Boy that Never Was, Only We Know or Girl Unknown. Still she wanted to know. Tell us how it is done, came the refrain. What is the secret? What is the formula?

I reverted to my own chorus: there is no formula, no secret. It’s practically impossible to talk in the abstract in any case. So let me tell you about this latest novel. The heroine – or anti-heroine; you decide – is a forensic photographer. She has a career; it’s a start. So why not try that.

Pick a character: who are they? In Can You Keep a Secret, she is Lindsey, and she's from somewhat humble beginnings, and because she was bullied at school she finds herself sent to another school by her father. It's a posher school, and sending her is going to stretch the family – but oh, how Lyndsey loves this school, and especially her new friends, the urbane Rachel Bagenal, her brother Patrick, and when she is invited back to their estate, to Thornbury Hall, she feels a mix of envy and delight.

Let it breathe

Soon the story takes on a life of its own. Let it do that. Let it breathe. I wrote reams of stuff that never made the final cut. Some of it was good, most if it was not. So be it, move on. Write, rewrite, refashion. Conflict is important – inner and outer. Is your protagonist sympathetic? They don’t have to be likeable, necessarily, but we have to root for them, right? Whatever about the machinations of all this, you have to be able to write a sentence before anything else. And that takes practice, trial and error, being able to take it on the chin when a good editor, or reader, or fellow writer, says no, try again. Try harder. Forget the well-worn Beckettian mantle of failure. Just try harder. How about that?

Cormac McCarthy once said the ugly truth about writing novels is that they are made out of other novels. True, to an extent

And you have to read. They go hand in hand, the reading and writing. And you have to keep an open mind – a learner’s mind or, like the unforgettable Maura O’Halloran, who was the first western woman to become a Japanese monk and was named “Soshin” – you have to consider that you are always a beginner. At the start of each writing day, that is how it feels, in any case. Or it does for me, and I think it probably should do for you – dear reader, dear writer.

There is a flow, when you are in the zone of writing fluently, but that is not complacency but concentration. That is a contemplative disregard of and for distraction. That is discipline. I'm not saying the page is blank – come on, it is never that – but we still must resist the barrage of the world's resistance to our words. We have to believe them, and in them, for a false note will be heard above the din of your verbiage. And lastly think about this: Cormac McCarthy once said that the ugly truth about writing novels is that they are made out of other novels. True, to an extent, but let me offer this: consider instead what he said a beautiful truth. Be selective about what you read and choose your predecessors with care. C'est tout.

Karen Perry is the pen name of Paul Perry and Karen Gillece. Join them and Liz Nugent in conversation as part of the Dead in Dún Laoghaire crime-writing festival at 4pm on Saturday, July 29th, in the Pavilion Theatre. Their fourth novel, Can You Keep a Secret?, is published by Penguin on August 26th