I’ll never forget something Helen Rees, the now semi-retired head of the Rees Literary Agency, said to me when I first joined the agency, back in 2000. Up until that time, I’d been working steadily as a freelance writer and editor but given that neither profession is known as a guaranteed way to rake in the big bucks, I was always on the lookout for another source of income. Since founding the agency in 1983, Helen had had great success with non-fiction, working with such luminaries as internationally respected professor and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, former chairman and CEO of General Electric Jack Welch, and (then) Senator John Kerry. But though her nose for great non-fiction was hard to beat, she knew discovering great fiction wasn’t one of her strengths. On the lookout for someone who could help her find fresh new voices, she initially hired me to assess prescreened submissions.
At first she paid me a flat fee for each manuscript I evaluated. Eventually, suspecting I’d make a good agent, she extended an official invitation to join the agency. I didn’t hesitate and agreed on the spot, believing agenting was just something I could add onto my workload. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong; almost from the start, I was inundated with submissions, many of which seemed to have promise. I was floored by the amount of them that I received, even though I was a brand new and untried agent. At the time, email was not widely used and day after day fat manila envelopes and cardboard mailers full of the work of unpublished writers arrived at the office addressed to me. Helen had previously agreed to let me work out of a home office so I’d go into Boston, where the agency is, then dutifully lug everything home and add it all to the growing pile of submissions accumulating on my dining room table. But so many of them had potential, I found myself confused. “How do I know?” I asked her, “How do I know if a book is really good?”
“Do you want to keep reading?” she said. It can’t be that simple, I thought. But she was right. In the end, it does come down to just that. Of course, as we all know, there’s a lot more involved but basically, that’s exactly what my job is all about—sorting through queries and manuscripts, constantly asking myself, do I want to keep reading?
After a few months, two things became obvious: one was that I had to choose between my work as a freelance writer and editor or my work as an agent, as it was impossible to do both. The second thing was that the manuscripts I wanted to keep reading the most tended to be crime fiction. I’d had to fight a bit of a battle with myself first, though, as somehow I’d gotten it into my head that I was supposed to try and discover toney literary fiction. Once I admitted to myself that most of that stuff tended to bore me to tears, I was off and running, confidently on the lookout for great crime fiction.
Time passed; eventually those huge piles of queries and submissions were replaced by thousands of emailed queries, each and every year. Still on the lookout for great crime fiction, I couldn’t help but notice that too many of these thriller and mystery submissions featured the same mistakes over and over and over. For my own amusement, I started keeping a list of these common blunders. But no one likes a steady diet of bad news so I started making a list of what those same manuscripts would have needed to make me keep reading.
Looking over my list one day, it struck me that I was developing a checklist, and that it might be fun to ask editors I’d done business with what they felt I ought to add to it. They rose to the challenge and contributed some points I hadn’t thought of. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing was cited often by them and I was pleased, leafing through his book, to find that many of his dictates were already on my list. Satisfied with the final result, I wondered what professional use I could make of my checklist. But not until about eight years ago, when asked if I would run a session of my choice at a writer’s conference, did it become clear to me that my checklist was exactly the tool I needed to conduct an informative and helpful breakout session. Of course, as we all know, rules are made to be broken but to break them you have to know them, right? And though my Twelve Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Crime Fiction checklist isn’t definitive (when it comes to writing, very few things are!), I’m confident it will provide a very helpful guide to those new to the art of creating crime fiction. And, as a teacher, I ain’t so bad, either!
(PS: There’s actually thirteen rules but like a lot of lovers of crime fiction, I’m superstitious and so, have dubbed the thirteenth “do” and “don’t” a “bonus” addition to the list.)
Ann Collette was a freelance writer and editor before joining the Rees Literary Agency in 2000. Her list includes books by New York Times bestselling author B. A. Shapiro, Oprah’s “Fall 2012 Unputdownable Mysteries” author Mark Pryor, Anthony Nominee Vicki Lane, RT Award Nominees Clay and Susan Griffith, Steven Sidor, National Bestseller Carol Carr, and Chrystle Fiedler. She likes thrillers, literary, commercial women’s fiction, mystery, suspense, horror and vampire fiction; in non-fiction, she prefers narrative non-fiction, military and war, work to do with race and class, and work set in or about Southeast Asia. She also represents cookbooks. Ann does not represent children’s, YA, sci-fi, or high fantasy (Lord of the Rings-type books).