Can You Teach Great Crime?

10th April 2013
4 min read
12th October 2020
M.R. Hall

At the start of February, and after a few shout-outs on Twitter, my fellow Macmillan author William Ryan and myself were soon joined by fifteen eager students for our first one day introductory course in crime writing.


Our intention with these courses is to help writers take that first step from an initial idea to the beginnings of a successful novel. However, every writer is different. Although William and I are both ex-lawyers, and so both of the systematic school of planning novels, we each come at the task from slightly different angles.

Our writing processes are different, and we were both keen to impart our knowledge of how to plan a crime novel (or at least how we think is the best way to go about it) to our keen listeners.

I spent ten years writing TV screenplays before turning to the novel form so, for me, everything begins with story structure. In fact, I can’t write a word of a book before I have mapped out the story beats of every chapter. Only when I know where the story is going can I relax into the far more enjoyable business of writing characters and exploring their emotions.

William, on the other hand, starts more from a character perspective. He maps each of them out in intimate detail, and only then, when his dramatis personae are all fully established, does he find the story structure for them to inhabit.

Both us became writers having studied our craft as an academic discipline. William did a year-long MA in creative writing, and I spent several years reading all the books I could on screen writing and spending a small fortune on repeat visits to Robert McKee’s excellent ‘Story’ course which is held several times each year in London.

Neither of us is wrong in our varying approaches, of course. You can learn from our writing processes and certainly take inspiration from them – but ultimately only you can decide what works best for you as writer.

We both believe that no one can make you inspired or give you that initial seed of an idea which may grow into a book. Thus (unfortunately) no one and no course can manufacture that flash of inspiration you get, or that idea that nags away in the corner of your mind until you simply have to write it down - so don’t be fooled.

Having said that, what you can learn are the writing techniques, the nature of a properly-paced plot, and the toolkit a writer needs to be able to turn their inspiration into a dramatically compelling story. Perhaps most importantly, what an established writer can give you is the confidence to get started.

What’s in it for us, you might ask? Well, I never knew how much I enjoyed teaching until I was asked to run the odd writing workshop. Meeting new and aspiring writers is a joy, and I remember how precious and critical the advice of established writers was to me when I was trying to learn.  It turns out to be a real pleasure imparting the few critical pieces of knowledge that helped me on the way.

Whether a writer works alone or seeks the solace of a writing course, what remains is this: ultimately a writer is someone who is prepared to go through all the hard work of crafting a novel, to absorb constructive criticism and to humbly go back and re-write. It’s a little like ploughing a field year after year. Back-breaking work, but worth it in the end.

Writing stage