Criminally Good Writing : The Scotsman Crime Short Story competition

As part of the shortlist for this comp, shortlisted writers were invited to attend a masterclass in the National Library of Scotland to glean some pearls of wisdom from author Ian Rankin, and Scotsman Literary journalist Susan Mansfield. It was the first non-film writing workshop I’d attended and to say I was a bit intimidated was an understatement, but it turned out to be very relaxed and went by in a flash. We weren’t told beforehand how many writers had been shortlisted, so I was well-prepared for a hall full of scribes but was pleasantly surprised (and a little shocked) to find we numbered only 20. Not only that, there were REAL linen tablecloths and proper stemmed glasses – mind you, I’m easily impressed. Mr Rankin (it seems too chummy to call him Ian when we’ve only shared a tablecloth) was helpful, open and funny.

We did some writing exercises, and here’s some of my edited notes :

Opening : ‘grab’ your reader at the start but don’t overdo it – make sure you don’t give your all as you’re going to have to keep up the pace or you’ll disappoint your reader. Don’t get too tricksy – it’ll never last. Americans like their murder early on. Trust your instincts and never underestimate an arresting opening line, and engaging title.

Characters : MUST be original – ESPECIALLY if in an area like Police or Medical. Music or song titles are a shortcut for a reader to ascertain things about a character that you don’t have to spell out. Mr R. has used lots of Rolling Stones song titles in his books. Ask yourself about your story world, ‘who makes a difference to the world?’, ‘what difference does your individual make?’. Are there any issues or questions that your character needs to explore – are they your issues? Know your character’s voice and make sure it comes across on the page, but don’t over-write it. Leave something for the reader to fill in so they feel involved. Try writing a scene only using dialogue to see what you can convey. Get rid of excess adverbs – trust the reader to know how an action is completed. Make sure you have the most interesting voice telling your story – maybe you’d get more distance from a peripheral character?

Research : sometimes necessary depending on subject, but NEVER halt the ‘muse’ just to look something up. Always keep the writing flowing, and fill in the necessary research afterwards unless absolutely vital. Always be open to changes of plot and possibilities of narrative when doing research. Trust to serendipity.

Genre : Don’t be restricted by what you expect a genre to be about – YOU make the rules. Don’t restrict your ideas when you’re working in a certain genre – crime fiction can deal with all sizes and types of stories – all locations – all types of issues. You can make your mark with shock value but don’t become a one-trick pony. Thrillers need detail (weapons, etc like Tom Clancy books), crime novels generally don’t!


The LEAST interesting things about a story are the ‘whodunnit’ details – the MOST interesting are the ramifications of a crime.

An a final note from Mr R. about blank page anxiety : try stopping half-way through a chapter at the end of a writing session, and half-way through a sentence, to avoid having to start on a blank page the next time you sit down.

We left happily clutching our bags full of Rankin books, audio books, 12yr old whisky and Rebus beer – how good is a competition that gives you beer AND books.


2 thoughts on “Criminally Good Writing : The Scotsman Crime Short Story competition

  1. ‘Americans like their murder early on’. That made me chuckle!Well done on this and the Metro competition. You seem to be on a roll!


  2. Were they wearing cravats then?Sounds like it was awesome. Interesting about the Whodunnit vs Ramifications and which is more interesting.I would have thought it would have been the other way around.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s