Reading the market

Wales landscapeOn June 21, Orion will be publishing my latest novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD. That book is the best book I’ve ever written. It’s the one I’ve most adored writing. The one whose central character has most emphatically and joyously invaded my head and my life.

From now to publication, I’m going to be writing a series of posts on different aspects of the book. How I came to write it. How I found a voice. How the character developed herself. How I structured the book. And so on. In essence, I’ll be talking about the art and craft of writing, but in a very personal way – how it played out for me with this book and this character. I’m not going to suggest that you should do the same as I did. Rather, I just want to share my own experience in the hope that some parts of it will echo helpfully. And we start – as I did – with the market.

Exploring the market
My path into the book was a curious one. I was approached by a well-known figure who was contemplating working with a ghostwriter on a crime thriller. I hadn’t read any crime for a long time, but was intrigued by the project. So I went out and bought about two dozen crime novels, then read them back-to-back over about two weeks. I don’t remember all the authors I read then, but the list certainly included:

  • Val McDermid
  • Linda LaPlante
  • Colin Dexter
  • Minette Walters
  • Nicci French
  • Mark Billingham
  • Ian Rankin
  • RJ Ellory
  • Barbara Vine

From America, I read:

  • Robert Crais
  • Harlan Coben
  • Linwood Barclay
  • Michael Connelly
  • George Pelecanos
  • Carl Hiaasen
  • Sarah Paretsky
  • Patricia Cornwell
  • Kathy Reichs
  • Elmore Leonard

I also read a bit of crime fiction in translation, though not at that stage Stieg Larsson.

Having done my reading, I started to think through what I’d read. Everything involved a crime and some kind of investigation, but that still left a million possible variations. Was the protagonist a cop or not? Was the tale first person or third? One viewpoint or many? Was romance a significant element? What about humour? How about forensic science? Morality? Was the book elegantly written or potboilerish? Was it more thriller or more crossword-puzzle style mystery? How violent?

Because I’m built that way, I created a spreadsheet and analysed my results. The spreadsheet didn’t spit out a Formula For Writing Bestsellers – and I didn’t want it to. But the exercise did help me understand what I wanted to write, and the directions I thought the Well Known Figure would be well advised to travel in. As it happened, that ghostwriting assignment never happened (or not with me anyway), so I was left with a headful of ideas and no obvious outlet for them.

Though I hadn’t previously been a crime-buff, I couldn’t get these ideas out of my head. After all, the crime tale is just a format around which to tell a story. The genre doesn’t need to be limiting – or at least, no more limiting to the artist than the sonnet-form or the iambic pentameter. And in among the stuff I read, there were some really, really good books. Some of them were inspirational in fact.

The kind of book I realised I wanted to write needed a really strong central character. A character so vibrant, so intense and mysterious, that the books would be as much about her as about the crimes themselves. (Oh, and why her?  Well, I’ll talk about that in a later post, but my detective was a woman from the very first.)

Other questions soon answered themselves too:

  • I wanted to avoid a crude moral approach, where every killer must be a sick bastard and where cops spend their time telling each other ‘Let’s put the sick bastard away.’
  • I wanted my novels to be dark, but for that darkness to come from mood and tone, not a splatter of gore.
  • I wanted my books to have a warm human heart: I wanted my central character to have some sustained, close, loving relationships – not merely be the compulsory heavy drinking loner.
  • Oh, and I also decided that my detective would kick against the stereotypes. Instead of being a middle-aged, male, single, boozer, I’d have her young, female, keen to enter a relationship and a non-smoking teetotaller.
  • I wanted my book to have a strong sense of place and to say something about the wider society.
  • I wanted my book to be a proper crime novel: fully inhabiting its genre, unafraid to participate fully in its rules and conventions.

Some of these things reacted against things I came across in my survey of the market – I just got fed up with all those maverick middle-aged cops, the hordes of serial killers with quirkily coded ways of dispatching their victims. Other elements of what I wanted to write picked up on things I found exciting. For example, once I’d encountered the atmospheric writing of Henning Mankell, RJ Ellory and Carl Hiaasen (to name three wildly different writers), I didn’t want my book to be any less placed than theirs.

I’ve never previously studied a market quite as consciously before starting to write for it – but I’d never now do otherwise. To say it again: I wasn’t after finding the secret formula for writing a bestseller. I wasn’t seeking to copy others. But nevertheless my ideas emerged directly from understanding the market for which I was writing and reading the novelists who have done so much to shape the contemporary crime novel. I think that research helped me naturally place my book on the leading edge of the current crime literature. That is: my book came to acknowledge the many excellences of current crime writers, but also reacted to that body of work by adding (I hope) something entirely new and distinctive.

And I think, in a way, my experience answers that age-old question: do you write for the market or do you write the book you’re passionate about? And the answer is: Both! You have to do both! If you aren’t passionate, you’ll write a rubbish book. If you don’t have a feel for contemporary writers in your area, you’ll be missing the argument. The conversation that books have with each other will have passed you by. You’ll have missed a trick and your book will be worse because of it. So do both. Write for the market and write with love. It’s what I did.

Harry’s Talking to the Dead can be pre-ordered from Amazon or from your local bookshop. You can see my author website here.

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  • Dan

    Really interesting stuff, Harry – thanks.

    Having come up with your protagonist before diving into Larsson, were you a tad miffed at his having pre-empted you on the ‘young woman with a troubled past’ front?

    I read your bio of Fiona on your site, and she’s certainly distinct from Lisbeth, so I’d guess not 🙂

    Cheers,
    Dan

  • Harry

    Interesting question! As it happens, I read Stieg Larsson when I was well into Talking to the Dead, and in fact my reaction was to think, ‘Yay! Just for once I’m writing right where the market hotspot is.’

    That reaction comes about partly because there’s certainly room for more than 1 Girl-With-Troubled-Past in the genre, but it’s also because my heroine makes Lisbeth Salander look like a pretty normal sort. (My lass is very odd, but I can’t say why without disclosing too much.)

    But your question emphasises my point about the market. Why did Larsson and I independently come up with the same kind of direction for our crime stories? Presumably because we both listened to the same kind of crime-literary conversation and came up with the same kind of responses to it. I’m sure his creation emerged from passion as much as mine has done – but because we were looking at the same crime scene, our responses (different as they are) do have some clear parallels.

    Oh, and just in case Stieg L is listening from heaven: bet Fiona Griffiths could kick Lisbeth’s ass. (And that’s a contest I’d love to see!)

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