CategoryAbout writing

Partner in crime

Here’s a nice piece on my editor, put together by other NZ writers who attended the recent WORD festival in Christchurch.


I thought I’d add my two cents worth.  Anna writes occasional book reviews for the Weekend magazine (inserted into Fairfax’s weekend papers) and readers won’t necessarily know that she brings the same thought and incisiveness to my manuscripts as she does to those reviews.


I will always remember the experience of getting feedback from Anna in her tidy but galley like room she once occupied in the old stone buildings at the Arts Centre  – before the force of nature, now known as the ‘Christchurch Earthquakes’ wrecked havoc on much of the city.


As a busy editor, and doubtless a little wary of working with a novice, she asked, ‘How long is the manuscript, Mark?’


For a second, I tried to remember the exact number. I knew the first two digits were 1 and 8. ‘I think it’s 188,000, give or take,’ I said, proud.


Anna’s eyes widened and she almost recoiled in her chair. She did well not to bring her hand to her mouth. ‘Oh Gosh,’ she said. ‘That’s very, very long for a crime novel.’


‘Is there a right length?’ I asked.


‘Well it depends on the story but it’s pretty unlikely that a publisher would look at anything over 90,000.’


‘As few as 90?’


‘Less.’ Hope in her voice. ‘Do you think you could work on it some more, get it down a bit?’


We agreed I’d do that and the version I gave her, after enormous effort, was 144,000. At that point I was too close to it be any more effective. Now, between us, we have the published work less than 80,000 and ideas I crammed into the original tome have percolated away and some have seen the light in my next novel, “Greed”. The difference is, those ideas get the treatment they deserve today as befits a protagonist who evolves over a series.


Looking back, I simply tried to do too much and more than halving the size of that first effort means Best Served Cold and all the subsequent stories now work to a tighter structure.


Apart from improvements in structure and style, Anna’s great at questioning when something doesn’t make sense to her. Neither of us want a reader faltering and rereading due to lack of clarity. But perhaps the most powerful tool my partner in crime brings me outside the mechanics,  is guidance on emotional tone, especially when writing a female character.  In draft stage, I’m sometimes guilty of over-relying on Sasha’s stunted emotional relationship with her mother and bringing this to bear in other relationships when circumstances warrant something different. And it is guidance – never an instruction what to write.


I totally endorse what the other authors have said about working with Anna – that it’s a team effort. I often hear myself using the term ‘we’ when discussing options for change or ideas. Being part of a team is much more rewarding than responding to a critic, no matter how good that critic is.”

True crime less ‘believable’ than fiction


We’ve had a remarkable story in New Zealand in recent days involving the Corrections department (prisons) and a convicted murderer and pedophile, Phillip Smith.  Despite his ghastly crimes and being recalled to prison after offending on parole and still being widely known as manipulative and devious, Corrections thought he was worth a try at living in the community. They set him up with a family ‘sponsor’ and without any electronic bracelet. This is after spending the best part of 13 years behind bars and reports describing him as a significant risk. Surprise, surprise, he had no intention of seizing the opportunity to reform and rehabilitate. He fled to South America and many say he should stay there.

But what’s even more bizarre is that in the lead up to being driven from behind bars to the airport, then  departing for Chile, Smith managed to acquire whilst in his cell, a passport under a former legal name. This name was also well-known to the authorities. Not only that, he put together $10K in cash from a business he ran in prison.

In my novel, Best Served Cold, (pictured above) there’s a scene when a final act of revenge is played out against an inmate. It involves the killer obtaining the cooperation of a prison manager who’d earlier been duped into believing he might regain financial losses, sustained at the hands of his prisoner. Realistic? Well that’s the nature of fiction – a series of events crafted so they lead to a plausible action. But in the case of Phillip Smith, if I’d had his series of events as a plot line  in one of my books, I’d have been criticised for a complete lack of realism and an over demanding requirement of readers for suspension of disbelief.   Who’d have thought that Corrections would not only be a source of derision but a source of the bizarre plot line.

Crime author interview

Craig Sisterson not only writes a great blog (Crime watch) promoting crime novels and novelists, he founded the New Zealand premiere annual award for NZ crime writers (Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel) . This year’s winner is pictured below.  It’s a great read.  To that end Craig is, I believe, MR CRIME in this growing community and has, almost on his own, furthered the ends of writers and readers of  crime novels in NZ and beyond.

Ngaio MarshIn this interview, I talk with Craig, but do check out and follow the rest of his blog for regular interesting updates.

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