28 May 2013

Finding Genre Presentation from the Emerging Writers' Festival

The story of how I found my genre is interwoven with the story of how I came to be published. Blood Witness, my first published novel, is the fifth I’ve written. And it’s taken me up to this fifth book to begin to refine my work to the conceits and expectations of the thriller genre, more broadly, and crime, specifically. My story is less one of trying a range of genres than one of honing in on what publishers look for in a commercial thriller. For me, my genre is as much a commercial consideration as it is a passion.

So why thrillers?

I was asked this question recently and found it surprising that I struggled to articulate a response. It’s not a case of thrillers being the genre that I read the most. I am as passionate about literary fiction and speculative fiction as I am about  crime or thrillers. I think it is more because I am drawn to strong narratives and intricate plotting. This is not unique to the thriller but it is certainly a key requirement. No one ever speaks of thrillers as meandering, pensive or abstract. For me, the thriller is as much about writing style as it is about genre. If I were to turn my hand to the other genres I am drawn to – historical or speculative fiction – these would follow the form of a thriller.

The first three books I wrote had thriller elements within them but were to varying degrees naïve or wilfully ignorant of the expectations of publishers. These early books tried to be cross-genre pieces with a foot in both the literary and commercial camp. They had slight gothic fiction elements, were heavy on delving into research and history and spent equal time on plot, character and setting. Not necessarily bad as an end goal, but when starting out they worked against me. Being published is about building a relationship of trust and the author makes that first offering — ‘trust me I know what I’m doing.’

I was fortunate that my fourth book captured the interest of Penguin. They didn’t offer me a contract straight away, rather we had a few discussions about how to improve the text and what to do to make it more finely honed as a thriller. Ultimately, it didn’t lead to a contract but this was a vital experience in developing my genre.

Most critically it lead me to change my tack. I stopped being a believer in the adage “write what you feel most passionate about”. My goal was always to be published through a traditional publisher. So I added in an important caveat: to write about what I was passionate about while trying to be aware of market trends and being more rigorous fulfilling the conceits of the genre I was writing in.

I chose crime because it is arguably the most successful area of genre fiction in Australia. Outside of Young Adult, few Australian authors see much success locally with my other interests, namely horror, fantasy or science fiction. But the local appetite for crime is well established – Peter Temple, Shane Maloney, Michael Robotham, PD Martin, Angela Savage, Kerry Greenwood, Gary Disher,  Peter Corris . . . So I did my homework. I read crime thrillers almost exclusively.

The book I wrote coming out of this was Blood Witness.

It drew heavily on my legal background. I honed it as a page-turner. I kept my chapters to less than 3,000 words. I plotted it thoroughly before I started writing. I revisited the structure of other crime thrillers and researched legal databases online for accuracy and setting notes. It was earmarked as book one on an ongoing series (something that appeals to commercial publishers). I included some vital crime novel tropes – two cases that dovetailed, the twist dénouement, the ticking clock and tried to present them in new and interesting ways. I scuffed up my lawyer protagonist by making him a boxer. All core elements of the genre that readers would recognise. ‘Trust me I know what I’m doing.’

And almost a year to today, I received an email from Penguin about meeting to discuss their publishing my novel.

But the story doesn’t end there as far as finding my genre was concerned.

Penguin had some notes and considerations on how to position the book in the marketplace. I should say that I am in no way adverse to discussions on marketing. I enjoy them actually, as the goal has always been to try and have as many people read my work as possible. A strong marketing position would only help with this.

While my main character is a lawyer the book is not a courtroom procedural, and there is an element of the hardboiled to him – pounding streets and faces to get the results.

Was it a crime thriller? A legal thriller? Or a straight up thriller? Each of these categories would bring with it a variation on the book’s title (which we were negotiating), the cover, its strapline and the approach taken by sales and marketing teams. Crime thrillers are already well established so that’s a plus. But there are very few solely legal thriller writers in Australia and this could act as a key point of difference. But in terms of the widest reach, would positioning it as a more general thriller work best? ‘Trust us we know what we’re doing.’

This was where I let the experience of the publisher step in and how I finally came full circle to calling myself a thriller writer.

Which is as good a point as any to address the final question posed by this session: are some genres better represented than others at festivals like this?

The Emerging Writers Festival positions itself as “promoting emerging writers in all styles, genres and forms”. While this is true for the most part, I feel commercial fiction is perhaps a little under represented in the festival and with it those big ticket commercial genres – crime, romance, fantasy and science fiction. Arguably this is by necessity. In order to remain relevant to the broadest range of writers these types of festivals can’t become too niche in their focus on genres. Besides where would one draw the line?

Looking more broadly there seems to be a uniquely Australian cultural cringe over commercial fiction. One need only observe the quietly-simmering resentment of commercial heavyweights Bryce Courtenay, Matthew Riley and Di Morrissey when interviewed in 2010 by Jennifer Byrne. In fact the very distinction 'literary' seems to bring with it a judgement of higher value and merit. This is about as useful as assuming that 'commercial' means a book will sell by the truck-load.

That being said, I do feel a few more sessions on the broader concern of commercial fiction would well serve a large section of the writing community. The readership is clearly out there so I dare say the ‘writership’ is out there as well.

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