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What editors look for in crime submissions – The Pool/ Virago crime writing competition

We asked a selection of crime editors on what they want from a submission, and what they look for when searching for a bestseller. Read on for some pointers for your own entry to the Virago / The Pool crime writing competition. 

Lucy Malagoni, Publishing Director, Sphere, @lucymalagoni

‘I think you can’t beat a killer opening (pardon the pun). One of the things I love about brilliant crime fiction is when you just can’t put it down and if an author can intrigue and hook me in by the end of chapter one, it couldn’t be a better start.’

 Alison Hennessey, Editorial Director, Raven Books, @AlisonEdits and @BloomsburyRaven

‘When I start reading a submission, what I’m hoping to find is a clear, original voice that instantly draws me into the story. I don’t need to like a protagonist but I do want to be intrigued by them. I love unusual settings, a strong sense of atmosphere and complex characters, and as I’m a big re-reader, I want to publish books with real depth, where it’s not solely about who did it, but why did they do it and what that means for the other characters, and for us as readers.’

Ed Wood, Editorial Director, Sphere, @edwoodeditor 

‘The two things are most look for in any book, crime or otherwise, are a killer concept and a character I want to follow. Get those two things right and everything else can be worked on. The best crime stories make you afraid: afraid that the killer won’t be caught, afraid that your main character won’t make it, afraid, perhaps, that you as a reader are missing the one clue that would unravel a mystery. From Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith to Mark Billingham or Gillian Flynn, it’s the characters we remember, but the mysteries that have us gossiping to colleagues about what might be going on. An original concept and a gripping character – they’re everything.’ 

 Sarah Savitt, Deputy Publisher, Virago, @sarahsavitt

‘Two things that are important to me as an editor of crime and thrillers (and probably all fiction!) is an unforgettable central character and a sense that I’m being invited into a fully imagined world made fascinating by the writer’s eye and imagination. What makes a character unforgettable? Like real people, it can be hard to put your finger on, but they need to be complicated, probably even contradictory, and to want something badly. The world the novel is opening up could be Ireland after the recent recession (Tana French’s Broken Harbour), post-WWI suburban London (Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests), the Edinburgh University medical department (Kaite Welsh’s The Wages of Sin) or the underbelly of a north London housing estate near my flat which I never gave a thought to before reading a spooky thriller set there (Ross Armstrong’s The Watcher). Make sure your reader can never think of that street/city/workplace in the same way again.’

 Lucy Dauman, Commissioning Editor, Sphere, @lucydauman

Whatever the genre, I will always respond to an engaging cast of characters who I can believe in – I want to empathise with the victims, the detectives and sometimes even the killers. In the real world, people are rarely one thing or another and I like this to be reflected in what I read. Another crucial element is voice. It’s hard to define exactly what makes a voice great but if it feels fresh, compelling and distinctive, I’ll sit up and pay attention. It’s easy to spot when an author is writing what they think we want to hear so my advice would be to be confident and follow your gut. I also respond well to great atmosphere and a strong sense of tension, both key components of a crime novel. Setting can be really important in this regard – nothing like a remote island or a windswept moor to create a sense of claustrophobia and isolation. Finally, it may come as no surprise that, as a crime editor, I love a great twist. There’s nothing more exciting than a twist that is original and genuinely shocking, whilst also remaining plausible. Easy, right?

With the Virago/The Pool New Crime Writer Award, we want to discover an exciting new female writer for the Virago list who is writing a suspenseful, intelligent, original crime or thriller novel. Find out more, and how to enter here.