Industry Insider: Writing crime thrillers for adults and teens

Industry Insider: Writing crime thrillers for adults and teens

Industry Insider: writing crime thrillers for adults and teens | allisontait.comTwo of the best things about Twitter are the people you get to know on the platform and the things you get to learn on the platform.

Those two things came together for me perfectly recently when the fabulous Australian YA author Ellie Marney put together a Twitter thread about writing crime thrillers for teens.

You might remember Ellie from this post [6 top #LoveOzYA authors talk about writing], where I flagged the excellent podcast interview we did together, or this post [How to tell when your writing is good enough], where she shared her thoughts on this subject.

Or you might remember this review from Book Boy of the first book in her award-winning ‘Every’ series.

Anyway, the thread on Twitter was so fabulous that I reached out and asked Ellie to put it together into a blog post.

Take it away, Ellie Marney!

How to write crime thrillers for adults and teens

Crime thrillers are a lot of fun to write, but you have to know how to piece them together. It’s easy to get lost amongst the plot twists, dark alleyways and red herrings – so here are some tips to keep you on the straight and narrow…

•Before you get started, check out some of the key elements of the thriller. Make sure you read books in the genre – focus on books you’ve enjoyed, or that you think are good examples. And read this great article by Hunter Emkay.

•Begin with the threat in the story (the crime) from your very first chapter – or introduce your protagonist with some dark foreshadowing – to grab your reader from the start.

•In a thriller, your villain drives the story. Your protagonist is always chasing one step behind…until the moment they catch up in the finale.

•Different sub-genres have different types of conflict:
–In an action thriller, there’s always a physical battle, and your protagonist should be in physical danger.
–In a psychological thriller, there might still be action, but the main conflict is the mental clash between protagonist and villain. The danger is to the protagonist’s mind or intrinsic identity and your protagonist needs to outwit the villain.

A thriller isn’t like a procedural: motives and intentions can be more important than the technical aspects of the crime. Think long and hard about why your villain is so villainous.

•Always complicate things emotionally and mentally for your protagonist. Your supporting cast, for instance, should all carry some personal baggage that increases conflict.

A great way to maintain momentum is to include scenes when decisions and plans have to be made by your hero and their allies in the middle of a crisis, or while in transit.

Conflict should continually escalate (like in any good novel) and the ticking-clock element is vital.

•The story engine for a crime thriller isn’t quite like a conventional Hero’s Journey arc – you have to factor in twist endings, for instance. A great primer on crime thriller story engines comes from Matt Rees in this post.

Keep these important differences between a suspense story and a thriller in mind:
–In a Suspense Story – your reader knows something your protagonist doesn’t, and tension builds;
–In a Thriller – your reader doesn’t see the threat coming (cue jump scare!)
–In a Suspense-thriller (combination) – the reader is waiting for something to happen. Your protagonist’s job is to stop it from happening. The reader identifies with the protagonist and becomes are participant in the race against time.

Extra tips for YA thriller authors

•Remember to give your teen protagonist agency. Don’t let adults drive the narrative action!

•The best way to give teen protagonists narrative agency is to give them a connection to the crime (as a witness, suspect, trainee investigator, high school journalist…Veronica Mars, anyone?). Alternatively they could have a connection to the victim of the crime, or to the villain.

•Creating that connection is doubly important because when an adult protagonist investigates, it’s usually their job – they have external motivation, regardless of their internal motivation. But when a teen investigates, they need a major internal push to keep going when things get dangerous. And you want things to get dangerous.

Externally, teen protagonists will have adults telling them to stay out of it, parents who are worried for their safety etc. Not all teens can drive, or have a car. Juveniles don’t usually have credit cards or ready cash. They’re supposed to be in school, and keeping up with their friends and homework. They have a lot of external restrictions and pressures. You can use all that to create additional conflict.

Three additional top tips

1.Whether you’re writing for teens or adults, make sure your villain is an equal match with your protagonist. They should be as intelligent and driven and multi-dimensional as your hero. Don’t let your story down with a weak antagonist. Is your protagonist the villain themselves? Bonus points!

2.Ask yourself, ‘what would the reader expect to happen?‘ – then discard those ideas. You want to write the unexpected.

3.Above all remember what a crime story is – it’s a story of the human puzzle, the primal conflict between the good and evil in peoples’ hearts. What makes a normal person do evil things? Crime narratives are a form of morality play, in which the reader is made aware of a lesson to be learned about human nature. So think carefully: What is the reader learning in your story?

And happy writing!

Ellie Marney is an Australian teacher and author of nine YA crime titles, including the Every series, White Night and the Circus Hearts series. She is the winner of a Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto Award and a Davitt Award, and been shortlisted for the ACWA Ned Kelly Award. Find out more at Ellie’s website.


Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! You can find out more about me here, and more about The Mapmaker Chronicles and the Ateban Cipher, my epic adventure series for middle-grade readers here. Thanks for visiting!

How to choose (or write) a story for beginner readers

How to choose (or write) a story for beginner readers

How to find (and write) stories for early readers | allisontait.comIt’s that time of year in Australia, as the last days of the school holidays wind down and our thoughts turn to A4-sized exercise books, glue sticks and shiny new school shoes.

For parents with kids in the early years of school, or even at preschool, thoughts might also turn to the best ways to help kids nail the basics of reading and become independent readers.

Writers might be thinking about how best to write stories for those kids.

The Your Kids’ Next Read Facebook group is a great source of advice when it comes to finding books for early readers. And, as it turns out, for those who might be wanting to try their hand at writing for those who are just grasping the basics.

Graeme Wilkinson is one such resource. As a parent supporting his own daughter who is taking her first steps into reading, and as a kindergarten teacher in Japan who has been teaching preschool children how to read more for than six years, he offers the following advice on what to look for in a book for early readers – and how to tailor stories to help first-time readers begin to read independently.

So, let’s turn the YKNR Author Spotlight on Graeme Wilkinson, with his five top tips for creating stories for early readers (and what to look for when you’re searching for books suitable for your new reader).

1. Try to use basic three-letter words as much as possible (words like cat, mat, rat, dog, fox, box, hop, nap, etc). Keep an open mind that there are three-letter words that don’t follow the fundamentals of basic phonics (words like ice, eat, eye, toe, day, fly, etc). Words that contain four or more letters are a challenge for first-time readers.

2. Keep your sentences short. Young children have short attention spans. For a first-time reader trying to read independently, it can take a long time to read a single word. Meaning comes only after reading a complete sentence, so keeping a sentence short allows them to combine all the words they can read and gain its meaning. This usually brings a great smile to their faces as they have conquered their first sentences as an independent reader.

3. A big text size is important. First-time readers learn best by physically touching each letter in a word on the page. If the text is too small, their fingers will touch one or two letters at the same time, letters may blend into a single-shaped word from their perspective and the result is more of a challenge for them. We should aim to set them up for reading success. So make it as easy as possible for them to succeed.

4. Try using word families in a story. Word families are words that share the same sound. If you are writing a story about a “hen” try and include words like pen, ten, den, men, Ben (perhaps the hen’s name) to emphasis the “en” sound. Once they become familiar enough with this sound, their reading speed (and enjoyment) will increase.

5. Try to avoid using too many sight words in a story. Sight words are generally regarded as high-frequency words that don’t follow the rules of phonics. Words like a, the, to, they, said, etc are words that cannot be read phonetically. These words are incredibly important for children to learn to read by sight alone. However, don’t overwhelm first-time readers with too many in a sentence or a story. This will result in a child’s frustration and their desire to have their parent read to them again.

“The aim for a book for first-time readers should be building a child’s confidence to read independently,” says Graeme. “There are a lot of good books out there for children to learn how to read, but few are basic enough for first-time readers to read without a parent’s support.”

Graeme set about creating his own stories. “Based on my experience teaching children to read, studying the research, discussing with colleagues and experts in this field, and the importance of decodable books for children who have dsylexia, I have developed my own stories pinpointing the most fundamental start to learning how to read for first-time readers,” he says.

The aim of a book for first-time readers should be building a child’s confidence and enjoyment to read.

Writing stories for early readers | allisontait.comYou can try Graeme’s story Dex, a short story about a greedy dog, here for free as a mobi and PDF file. It’s designed to help first-time readers who know their basic phonics sounds to read independently. There is also a reading guide at the back for parents who check in on their child’s comprehension.

If your kid loves Dex, please leave a review on Goodreads here.

And please join the Your Kid’s Next Read Facebook group here.

Industry Insider: How do you know when a story is ‘finished’?

Industry Insider: How do you know when a story is ‘finished’?

Industry Insider: How to know when your story is 'finished' | allisontait.comOne of the most interesting aspects of any author workshop is the Q&A section at the end. You might remember this post, wherein I advised authors to be prepared for ‘anything’ when it comes to this particular aspect of a talk. But I confess I was caught short during my recent visit to the Burdekin Readers’ & Writers’ Festival.

In my defence, it was the end of a very long, hot Friday, in a (mostly) year 9 workshop, when a year 11 student put up his hand and asked me this question:

How do you know when a story is finished?

I was focused on structure, so I blathered on about getting to The End, about three acts, about reading a lot of books so that you have an innate sense of story structure.

And then I thought about it all weekend. Because, of course, he wasn’t asking me about how to get to The End of a story, he was asking me how you know it’s time to Let Go of a story.

Which is a really, really good question.

Such a good question, in fact, that I decided to get some help to answer it. So I asked a few author mates for their perspective and they all gasped in horror – because the answer is at once simple and complicated.

But then they – in all their award-winning, bestselling glory – gave me their answers, which you’ll find below. They write across a whole range of genres, demographics, and styles. They write novels, novellas, short stories, and essays. Some have 30+ books to their names. In short, they know their way around a story.

Click their names to find out more about that award-winning, bestselling stuff on their websites, and the title of their latest book (in brackets) to find out more about it.


11 top Australian authors share how they know a story is ‘finished’

“It’s never finished! I had to re-read The Paris Seamstress for the eleventy-billionth time to proofread it for the US market after it had been published here in Australia and I made changes to it yet again! So I prefer to think of a manuscript as “as good as I can make it at the time” rather than finished. Finished is obviously much shorter and punchier to say though!

So the moment when I submit a manuscript is when it really is as good as I can make it right then. I’ll always leave a manuscript to sit for at least a couple of weeks before I send it anywhere, have another look at it and then, if I’m just tinkering rather than really editing or redrafting, it’s reached the stage when it’s ready to go.

For interest’s sake, I did 13 drafts of my very first novel before it was accepted for publication; I now do around 5 or 6 drafts. I know they’re not perfect – that even the published book isn’t perfect – but it’s my best work at that moment.

Which is a good test – can you say, hand on heart, that you’ve done everything possible and given it your all and made it your best possible work? If so, then it’s ‘finished” – for now!”

Jack Heath (Liars #1: The Truth App)

“You know you’ve finished the plot when the reader can guess the rest. You know you’ve finished the first draft when you can’t think of any other things to change, and you can’t stand the thought of looking at it again. But you’ll have to read it at least four more times to implemented everyone else’s suggestions – that’s when the book is finished.

Melina Marchetta (Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil)

“I find that if I can read a hard copy without scribbling notes on the page, then that’s it.”

Anna Spargo-Ryan (The Gulf)

  1. When you write something, you know what’s supposed to be in it, all the background information and research. You have all this context that a new reader won’t have. In that sense, I think it’s very difficult to know when your own work is finished. Writing a book is a team effort. I rely on other people – not to tell me whether or not the story is finished, but to help me see why it isn’t.
  2. I also think you get to know your weaknesses as a finisher. I write rushed, terrible endings. I know that the first time I write an ending, it’s not finished, and probably still isn’t finished until I’ve rewritten it four or five times. I always think it’s finished, but I’ve come to know better.
  3. “Finished” always comes sooner than I expected. I’ll be writing and writing and then, suddenly, it will be done. That happens to me at first draft stage, and at final proofreading stage. It’s like a magic trick (the only magic trick that exists in writing).
  4. Lastly, most writers – and other artists – will tell you that nothing is ever truly finished. There’s a point at which you just have to abandon it. I sometimes read over my published writing and think, oh yeah, I would change all of these things. But you could honestly keep on doing that forever, and I think often you wouldn’t even necessarily make it a better work on the whole. Would this sentence be better written a different way? Maybe. Will it make the whole book so much better? Probably not. I read once that the painter John Olsen (I think) would take a brush to exhibitions and touch up his work while it was hanging on the gallery walls. There’s a point at which you have to recognise you’ve done as much as a project needs and that’s not the same as doing everything you wanted to do, but it doesn’t make it any less finished. Let it go.

Pamela Freeman/Pamela Hart (The Desert Nurse)

“I know it’s finished when the characters/plots etc don’t bug me when I’m waiting in line, or at the traffic lights – if my mind is disengaged and the book doesn’t appear in it, it’s probably done.”

Krissy Kneen (Wintering)

“I know I am about to be finished when a new book starts to knock on my brain. I get the urge to move on because the new book feels so much more interesting. I start to read and collect material that relate to the next book. This is how I know I am about to finish a project. Pretty soon after this I can put the final sentence in, read over the book and just feel the urge to submit it. Moving on is a sure sign it is done.”

Alan Baxter (Devouring Dark – coming 6 November, 2018)

“I know it’s finished when I’ve had it read by a couple of people I trust and addressed their concerns, and it subsequently doesn’t keep knocking on my brain for more. I never trust that feeling unless others have read it, too.”

Cat Sparks (Lotus Blue)

“When it comes to judging my own work on this score, I am almost always wrong when I initially decide a story is done. Everything I write needs to be composted for at least three months, enough time for glaring errors of style and judgement to become visible to my own eyes. Sometimes longer.”

Ian Irvine (The Fatal Gate – The Gates Of Good And Evil #2)

“I don’t show my work to anyone for an opinion, I judge it myself. And I like to meet my deadlines, so I normally submit on the day or a few days later. Occasionally, well in advance, I might ask for an extra month, in which case I treat that as a firm deadline.”

Dmetri Kakmi (Mother Land, plus essays, short stories and novellas)

“For me a piece is never really finished. You can always do better. But I do recognise when I’ve done the best I can for the time being. I stop and send it to my trusted editor, who then pushes me beyond whatever barriers I might have. Ultimately though I know when a story is ready to go into the world, flawed or not. It’s a gut feeling.”

Jacqueline Harvey (Disappearing Act – Kensy and Max #2)

“I know it’s finished when I feel like I’ve brought together the loose ends and untangled the mysteries – the last line really needs to give me a feeling of ‘ahh, it’s done’ (either that or I’m crying tears of joy for my characters).”

I hope you found this helpful! Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! You can find out more about me here.

For more brilliant writing advice and tips from top authors, check out my book So You Want To Be A Writer (How To Get Started While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo. 

And now, some straight talking about writing…

And now, some straight talking about writing…

I seem to write about writing a lot (you’ll find my hundreds of blog posts about writing here). And if you listen to So You Want To Be A Writer, the podcast I co-host with Valerie Khoo, you’ll know that I also talk about writing, and ask other authors about their writing, a lot.

But I don’t often talk about my own writing. I’m usually asking the questions, not answering them.

That all changed when Kel Butler from Writes4Women podcast interviewed me about all things writing. The first part of the interview came out a few weeks ago as a ‘minisode’, focussing on book promotion and building your author platform. You can listen to it here on the web or here on iTunes (Ep 18).

The main interview was released a few days ago and, as Kel says, you’ll need a cup of tea for this one. The interview covers a lot of territory, including:

•finding your writing voice

•writing while parenting

•dealing with rejection

•writing without a plan (aka how I learnt to outline)

•making time to write


•raising readers, and lots more.

You can listen to the interview via the web here or on iTunes here (Ep 20).

I hope you enjoy!

Are you new here? Welcome! You can find out more about me here and all about my books here: The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher.

Stop talking, start writing… #writeabookwithal (Feb 2018)

Stop talking, start writing… #writeabookwithal (Feb 2018)

Stop Talking, Start Writing with #writeabookwithal Feb 2018As threatened, it’s here. Day one of #writeabookwithal (Feb 2018).

If you’ve done this before, you know how it goes. Lots of people TALK about writing a book. Now it’s time to actually write it.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to … write. As many words as you can, as many days as you can, alongside me as I work on my new manuscript.

If you’re new here, you’ll find a basic rundown of how it all works here. You might also like to find out a bit more about me here, to see what you’re getting yourself into…

One tip: follow my Facebook page and mark it as ‘see first’ to make sure you don’t miss the word count posts. This is where most of the discussion (and cheerleading!) takes place.

Some other posts that might help:

How to get the words written: 10 tips for writers

Six reasons you should start writing your novel now

Some books are harder to write than others: 7 tips for getting to The End

3 ways to make yourself write when you really don’t want to (but absolutely have to)

Don’t forget I also have really useful courses for you:

Make Time To Write

Creative Writing 30-Day Bootcamp

Ready, set… write!

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