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Jo Nesbo's Guide To Writing A Bestseller

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Crime author Jo Nesbo tells ShortList’s Jonathan Crocker how you can do the same

First it was Swedish chiller Let The Right One In. Then came Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Now there’s a new literary phenomenon burning through Scandinavia and on to the big screen. Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s bestselling novels — 11 so far — became a sensation in his frosty homeland. And it’s easy to see why. Headhunters, the first film adaptation of his work, tells the story of Roger Brown, a headhunter who supplements his income with art theft before running into trouble. With killers, thieves, twists and tension, has the 52-year-old cracked the secret formula for writing a bestselling crime novel? Can he teach us? This is the advice he gave us…

1. WRITE FOR YOURSELF

“When I’m writing, I’m imagining an audience of one — myself. To me, writing is not about visiting people, it’s about inviting people to where you are. And that means you must know where you are. When you reach a crossroads, if you think, ‘Where would the reader like me to go?’ then you’re lost. You have to ask yourself, ‘What would make me want to get up tomorrow and finish this story?’ Sometimes the story will point the direction all by itself. Of course, it’s you as the writer who decides, but sometimes you feel like there’s a sort of gravity in the book.”

2. USE YOUR LIFE

“It’s good to draw on real-life experiences. When I’m writing a book like Headhunters, I use the crime genre but I also use myself. I’ve done a lot of different things. I was an officer in the air force. I make music. I worked as a stockbroker for many years. That’s how I had the inspiration for Headhunters. When I worked as a financial analyst, I was interviewed by headhunters. What helps my books is that I have a life, therefore I can relate to people’s lives.”

3. PULL LITERARY HEISTS

“Do I steal from other books? Definitely. And if I’m a thief, I can tell you I’m stealing but I can’t tell you who I have robbed. Well, OK, Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — those were great books. For me, writing is a reaction to reading. It’s the same reflex you have around a table of friends. Somebody will tell a story, then the next person will tell a story, then the next. Then you have to bring something new to the table. I grew up in a home where I had so many great experiences being the listener or the reader. Now it’s my turn.”

4. HAVE A PERFECT PLAN

“If you have a good story to begin with, it will be great no matter how you write it. I like to have confidence that I know the story — that when I start writing, I have worked it over and over, so I don’t have the feeling after page one that I’m a story-maker. I’m a storyteller. The story is already there, I’m not making it up as I go along. That’s when you have the confidence to tell your readers, ‘Come and sit closer, because I have this great story. So just relax, lean back and trust me.’ That’s the way I feel when I’m reading work by the great storytellers.”

5. GO IN STRONG

“Americans are best at introducing their stories. In the first pages of a book they have a shameless way of hyping their own tale. It’s a tradition. John Irving does it, and Frank Miller, the graphic novelist, has the same way of manipulating you into turning the page. I love that. And it could be anything that makes your readers want to keep going — you can’t think in terms of rules. Just go with gut feeling. If the idea of an opening fascinates you and it sounds challenging, you’re on the right track.”

6. WORK WHEREVER YOU ARE

“I write everywhere, but the best place is in airports and on trains. When you’re sitting on a train or waiting for a plane, you only have a limited time to write. It makes you feel that time is precious. If you wake up in the morning and say, ‘OK, today I’m going to write for 12 hours,’ you don’t feel that. I like to know I’m going to do as much as I can in just one or two hours.”

7. WATCH CRIME FILMS

“My generation of writers has probably seen more movies than read books. In one of his books on screenwriting, Syd Field says, ‘Action is character.’ And you can adapt that in novels: it’s all about show, don’t tell. And to do that, you need action. People doing things, like in Seven, for example, the crime scenes tell a story. These tableaux are intensely effective in movies and in novels. If you consider No Country For Old Men, I can’t see anything in the book that’s not in the film. The language of the novel works perfectly when translated to film. Novels are borrowing the language of films, and novels are essentially doing what films do.”

8. LET THE TITLE CHOOSE ITSELF

“There are no rules when it comes to the title of a novel. Ideas come in all different ways. With The Snowman, the novel started with the title. I thought, ‘That sounds like a great title!’ And then I started thinking about what the title implied in terms of the story. So that was the start. In other cases, it’s the last thing I do. Sometimes it comes midway through the book. Like I said, no rules. Headhunters was obvious, because of the double meaning. That came quite quickly — it was a no-brainer.”

9. BE THE PSYCHOPATH

“Writers work similarly to actors; you have to be able to identify with a character. Even if you’re writing a psychopath, you have to find that little piece of psychopath that you have within yourself, and then you have to enlarge them a bit. Scary? Well, that’s what you have to do. Most humans are complex — we’re so full of different ingredients that we’ll be able to find most things within ourselves. Just use your imagination. Crime writing can be a dark universe, so, mentally, it’s tiring to write. I’m writing children’s books at the moment, my first was called Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder. It makes me feel better.”

10. WRITE WHAT'S THERE

“It’s not a matter of trying to write a bestseller. It’s writing what you have. And if you are lucky, you may share your taste of storytelling with a broad audience. I had no idea my stories would reach a wide audience. I thought they were more for a small audience. So I was surprised when I realised that I had so many people in my home.”

Headhunters is at cinemas nationwide from 6 April

(Image: Rex Features)

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