Fraser Massey has recently completed Whitechapel Messiah, a crime thriller yet to find a publisher. Written in the first person, it’s about an ambitious news reporter who needs to learn that there are grim consequences for not telling the whole truth when writing headline-grabbing front page stories. The protagonist’s misrepresentation of what happened in a street battle between police and protestors in Whitechapel, where a woman died while being arrested, provokes further riots across the country causing widescale destruction and more deaths. To try to put things right, he investigates the reasons for the woman’s death and finds himself infiltrating a sinister religious cult who believe they’ve found the new Messiah.
Fraser is a journalist by profession. He studied Communications at the University of Sunderland and has worked for several regional and national newspapers, including stints as a feature writer for The Times and as a showbiz reporter on the Daily Mirror, as well as writing a weekly column for three years on the Radio Times. He loves books and says his flat is groaning at the seams. His favourite bookshop is Goldsboro Books in London’s Covent Garden.
Because he wanted to try to write fiction, Fraser enrolled in a course run by the Guardian with the strap line ‘Learn to write a crime novel in a weekend’. He says that, unsurprisingly, he didn’t achieve this improbable feat, but the course gave him a taste for learning more, so he studied on the MA in Creative Writing course offered by City University in London. To gain the award he had to write a whole novel. This was his first attempt at completing a full-length work of fiction and it was proficient enough not only to qualify for the MA but also to attract the attention of several agents.
But none followed up on their initial interest. A slush-pile reader for one agency later explained to him that his choice of genre for that book – it was a western – probably counted against him. “Westerns are so notoriously difficult to sell in Britain that most bookshops don’t even have a shelf displaying them,” he was told.
To avoid making the same mistake twice, he enrolled on a short course run by Curtis Brown, the well-known literary agency, hoping to learn how to write a more commercially appealing novel. It was while there he began writing Whitechapel Messiah.
While the book was still in its early stages, an early draft of it was shortlisted for the Capital Crime Festival New Voices award, although on the night the prizes were handed out it was pipped at the post.
Encouraged by this near success, Fraser decided that entering competitions were the way forward if he wanted to get noticed as a writer (which is how I came into contact with him – I have run several Nanowrimo competitions on behalf of publishers).
Challenged on the value of creative writing courses – opinion on these seems to be polarised, with some people thinking they are indispensable and others disliking them – Fraser says they have been useful to him. They have taught him how to read books as a writer, to learn from other authors. At present, he is reading the works of female writers, to study how they describe women – and men, too. Reading other novelists – he reads at least one book a week – has also helped him to write dialogue. For the City course, he was given a book to study and a number to call to interview the author – and he got Lee Child! He says Child was very helpful – although he did tell him to abandon the creative writing course and “learn how to do it yourself” (much to the annoyance of the tutor!).
As I am familiar with Fraser’s writing, I offered the criticism that sometimes the prose is surprisingly inaccurate for someone who has earned their living from writing. He agreed and said that one of the hazards of journalism is that the journalist gets the story down as quickly as possible and then passes it to a sub-editor for polishing. He has therefore developed a few bad habits that he is now trying to eradicate.
Fraser has many tips to offer other would-be crime writers. Here are his top 5:
- Join a writers’ group. It’s good to have people around you to offer advice when you run into problems; and anyway writing is otherwise too solitary an occupation.
- Focus on structure. If your plot doesn’t run smoothly, you run the risk of readers’ getting bored and giving up on your book. As Mickey Spillane said, “Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.”
- Find regular time in your day to devote to writing. This includes time to revise what you’ve written today and to think about what you’re going to write tomorrow.
- The crime novelist Claire McGowan taught me: “Premise (the fundamental idea behind your plot and its unique selling point) is the most important thing in publishing today.” I won’t even start writing another book until I’ve worked out a cracking premise first.
- Writing a good synopsis is one of the most daunting tasks. Next time, I’m going to map out the synopsis before I sit down to write a word of chapter one.
This is all great advice. Each one of these tips involves exercising good discipline as a writer. It’s easy to jump too soon into the actual writing: as Fraser says, “Writing is the bit I enjoy most, so I don’t want to be distracted by having to worry whether my plot works when I’m immersing myself in the narrative voice.”
If you are a publisher and interested in taking a look at Fraser’s novel, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Tomorrow the post will be by rights expert Lynette Owen, on how authors should approach copyright.