Louise Phillips on writing crime

Ahead of her workshops at Dalkey Creates festival, Louise Phillips discusses the joys and challenges of crime fiction ahead of Dalkey Creates

Here, Louise Phillips discusses the art of writing gripping crime fiction, and what attendees can expect from her workshops.

What do you love about writing crime?

I love writing crime fiction for many reasons, but the main one is the same reason that so many readers enjoy reading it, a fascination with people who don’t follow the same rules as ourselves. This curiosity asks big questions of the reader and the writer. How far is someone prepared to go to get what they want, how far is your protagonist prepared to go to protect themselves or others? It’s as if you and the reader are on a human roller-coaster ride. I love that because as the writer you have to dig deep. Also, by and large in crime fiction the stakes are extremely high. With high stakes your fictional characters have a lot to lose. This really pushes them, and by extension, you as the writer. Crime fiction places ordinary people in extraordinary situations. You wonder if this could happen to you, or to someone you love. When you take that journey into the darker side of humanity, you are doing so with the knowledge that people will be tested. Some people think crime fiction is about violence, murder or other gory stuff. Sure yes, sometimes it is, but it’s also about human frailty, love, life, fear, hate and loss, and all the other great stuff in between. If you’ve done your job well as a writer, people will want to take that journey with you. They will empathise with the people who inhabit your fictional world. They will care about what happens to them. For me, I love the challenge of writing great crime fiction. I want my readers to care, and for a little while, like me, to leave reality and enter a fictional world which will engage and entertain them.

What are common pitfalls you’ve come across?

The biggest pitfall for many writers, is the doubting voice. It usually kicks in on the first draft, and around the middle of my story. I start wondering if anyone will want to read it, if the story is good enough, if my writing is good enough, if I know my characters well enough and a million other questions. If you let this get in the way, you will never finish your story. The reality is that first drafts are simply that. They are your first attempt at telling the story to yourself. Now I’ve learned to trust the process, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I will always have doubts, but I’ve also discovered that the doubts will often make my writing better.

Another pitfall for writers, including myself, is procrastination. You plan to write after you get a, b, or c, done, but then other things get in the way. Mostly, it’s not because you’re not disciplined enough, it’s because of fear. Fear that whenever you sit down to write, you may not know what to write about, or that the writing isn’t as good as you want it to be (I know, more doubts!). The best way for me to overcome procrastination is to set a routine, and also, to give myself a daily word count target. I don’t always achieve my target, but sometimes I write past it, and overall, I get there in the end. But firstly, I have to do a very simple thing. I have to turn up at a given time and write. I teach crime fiction writing at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin, and what I usually say to writers, is to agree a time and place to write, even if you’re sitting at a desk for two hours unsure of what you are going to put on the page. The words will appear if you give them the chance to arrive.

What do you hope people take from your workshops at Dalkey Creates?

A great many things, including what an exciting challenge crime fiction writing really is! During the workshops we will look at different ways to create a gripping crime novel, examining things like pace and the elements which add or take away from it, including creating effective dialogue and great characters.

It doesn’t matter if you’re only starting out as a writer, or if you’re on the sixth draft of your manuscript, I hope there will be something new and different for everyone who attends. I think workshops are terrific ways to get motivated, to learn new things and to meet other like-minded souls. Writing is primarily a single-handed affair and the Dalkey Creates festival workshops are a great opportunity to take part in something that will be fun and hopefully get those creative juices going.

What crime authors do you admire?

There are some terrific crime authors and I’m pretty varied in my reading taste. I admire authors who bring me on an emotional journey and get me so hooked into the fictional world that I don’t want to do anything other than read and turn the pages. I also like writers who take risks, and this is mainly because it pushes the genre and stops it from becoming stale. Of the Irish crime authors I’ve read this year, my favourites are Catherine Howard with Distress Signal, Sheila Bugler with All Things Nice and Vanessa Rohan with The Last Days of Summer. They are all very different writers and stories, and each admirable in their own way. Looking beyond Ireland, I really enjoyed Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase and The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson.

Dalkey Creates is a writing festival bringing together authors and creatives at the top of their game, for a series of fantastic workshops. Authors such as Louise Phillips, Monica McInerney, Hazel Gaynor and more will lead workshops on writing fiction, Hachette Editorial Director Ciara Doorly will explain what an editor looks for, and screenwriters Ferdia MacAnna and Kieran Grimes will explain scriptwriting, plus many more events and talks. Running from October 13-16, book tickets early, as this is sure to sell out quickly. Writing Crime with Louise Phillips takes place as two workshops on October 15 and 16 from 10am to 1pm and costs €75. Visit www.dalkeycreates.com for tickets and more information on the festival.

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