When I grow up I want to be… a crime novelist

Ever harboured a secret ambition to be a crime novelist? Meet John Harvey – a renowned crime writer, with over 100 published books to his name, including the Nottingham based Resnick series.

In 2007 he received the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in Crime Writing and in 2009 he was made an honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Nottingham. John tells Impact Arts what it is like to write a best-seller, why he got started, and some advice for aspiring novelists.

Being a writer can be hobby, a form of expression or a full time job. But for me it’s always primarily been the latter. I decided to be a crime novelist for the same reason as Elmore Leonard: the market for Westerns dried up.

I’m sure there is a strategy to novel writing, but it has to involve the publisher as much as the writer, if not more.

I don’t think I ever think of a reader when I’m writing – apart from, occasionally, my editor or publisher. For good or ill, I’m my perfect reader. As to improving, I’m always trying to do that, if not always succeeding. One way of doing this is to set yourself something slightly different to do with each new book.

I wouldn’t recommend pursuing a career as an author if you want to be sure of making a living. I believe the average author’s income in this country is somewhere around £5,000 a year. My first job after university was teaching English & Drama in secondary schools for 12 years.

If you want to be a commercial novelist, you should decide on a particular genre to write about. Try and find the best fit between the genres you’re interested in and what seems to be selling or what publishers seem to looking for. If you’re more ‘literary’ bent, genre is less applicable.

One of the most important skills a writer has to have is an inbuilt feeling for the rhythm of language- with a lot of reading it can be learned. Second you need a highly-developed sense of how narrative works in order to keep the story moving within a certain shape, and to keep the reader’s attention. Third is definitely patience.

A non-vocational degree is still important because it gives you access to books, books and books. Plus ideas. Plus characters. Then more books. But you don’t need a First to be an author.

I think creative writing courses can help a beginner writer with work in progress, but without the three skills listed above less so. If you have a choice between paying to go on an expensive course and buying a lot of books, buy books. If you can do both, so much the better. I myself didn’t have any formal training in creative writing.

My final piece of advice to any aspiring author would be: Read.

Interview by Eve Wersocki Morris

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