Each week, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to tell us about themselves and their writing. In this thought-provoking article, Morgan Greene looks at the process of writing crime fiction and the importance of knowing the market for your writing.
Know Your Market
There’re are plenty of adages that guide ‘writing’. “Write what you know”, “if you don’t love what you write, how can anyone else”, “tell the story you want to hear”, and for the select few, they aren’t untrue. There are people out there who’ve had magnificent lives, stranger-than-fiction experiences that they can draw from. There are ex-police detectives and pathologists who can use their own careers as templates to write stunning thrillers. And there are, of course, those who can package up familial drama, forbidden romances, the nuanced dynamics of friendship groups in ways that enrapture legions of readers. But what about the rest of us, who either don’t have those experiences or perhaps just don’t have that kind of unnatural talent? Are we to be barred from this industry? Luckily, the answer is no.
I have always written, and have been determined to be an author since I was, I don’t know, fourteen or so, I suppose. I’ve always loved books, and have always loved writing, but my back-catalogue (along with hundreds of agent rejections) show that my first book was terrible, and that my writing self-serving, adolescent, and just down-right bad.
But I didn’t let the dream go, and I’ve worked hard — really hard — at writing. And I’ve developed it, and honed it, and distilled down to a style that is functional and easy to read. It’s not especially pretty, and is certainly not Joyce or any other of the writers that’ll shape the course of literature forever. But I like it, and readers seem to, as well.
I never set out to write crime and thriller, but now that I am, I love it. I’ve written across lots of genres previously, and am grateful to have been given the chance to. When I was studying writing at university, I started freelancing as a copywriter, but managed to land a few fiction contracts, too. So over the course of my degree, I wrote erotica, horror, YA fantasy, science fiction, and even literary surrealist short stories.
People were willing to pay me to write these things (not much, mind), and then they were selling them in various forms. And the thing that intrigued me was that they would provide me briefs to follow. Outlines of how to put the stories together, what plot points to hit, what kind of characters to use, and how the novels should progress.
They knew what readers wanted before the stories were even written. And they were right, too.
And through my own writing, reading, and investigation of the book world — and with help from Grindstone Literary, the company I run — I’ve come to the absolute conclusion that there is a blueprint for this thing. For writing. For each genre. That you can pick up a novel at random, and based on its categorisation, you can make some pretty firm assumptions about it.
This blueprint works both ways, though — as it’s not just writers fuelling this, but readers, too. Readers will gravitate towards things they like — certain types of books, tv shows, food, drinks brands. Humans like to have things in neat boxes, and they like what they like. And their reading habits are no different.
Crime and thriller is the most saturated market, and nearly half of all books sold and read are in these genres. It’s not surprising then that there’s a ‘norm’. The industry itself perpetuates it. Agents need to know what your book is like so they can determine whether they can sell it. Publishers need to know what your book is like so they can estimate how well it will sell — and of course, how to market it as such.
Every crime listing on Amazon will have ‘Perfect for fans of this famous author and that famous author.’ And my books are no exception. And it’s because we know, as authors, if ‘X Author’ is selling a million copies, and I do what they’re doing, that’s going to maximise my potential when I sell my book. If an agent tells a publisher you’re the next Lee Child or Michael Connelly, then they’re likely to sit up and listen.
It happens from all sides, everyone pushing a ‘write like this author’ sort of trend that keeps the genre on a set of rails. But really, that’s not a bad thing — and this definitely isn’t a criticism of it.
But what does writing crime mean for a new author then? They all believe that they have a unique spin on the ‘core’ crime novel. That their detective is different, their killer darker, their crime weirder, their twist more whiplash-inducing. In the end, we’re all writing the same book with the names swapped out. And yet, the genre continues to grow, and continues to endure, and this recipe proves to be more and more effective as time goes on. People do not tire of it. And why is that?
Honestly, I wish I knew. All I can say is that people drink tea every day, and they always drink it the same way. Milk, sugar, black. Whatever their preference. They won’t change that recipe though.
And crime is no different. It is the known, and the comfortable. And when I was getting ready to dive into it, I actually relished that.
Having written to brief so many times before, I could sort of see it laid out in front of me.
Start with a damaged detective. Then add in a crime committed against a person who can be sympathised with — children and women are the most common. Then you round up a circle of likely suspects, a trail of clues to follow, a couple of red herrings and twists along the way, culminating in the great ‘solve’.
When it comes to your villains, that’s where you have some choice. Your options are this: the villain is one of the original suspects, hiding in plain sight, and is revealed to both the reader and the detective at the same time. The villain is not one of the original suspects, and their identity is kept from both the reader and the detectives until the back half of the book, and then it’s a mad-scramble to find them before they ‘strike again’. Or you can have the villain known to both the detectives and the reader, and they’re trying to catch him/prove his guilt before he escapes or commits his next crime. And I use ‘him’ because the villains are most often men — in fiction as they are in real life.
It may seem like a trivialisation to say that all crime novels can be separated into three basic plots, and sure, there are some outliers which buck the trend, but for the most part, this is what a crime novel is.
So when you’re thinking about writing one, it’s as simple as choosing your preferred method, coming up with a good detective, a good twist, and then getting to work, right?
Writing is only about ten percent of the battle.
Because it’s all well and good writing that novel, but then what do you do with it? How do you sell it? And who do you sell it to?
You can either publish traditionally — pitch to agents, cross fingers, receive rejections. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Or, you can self-publish. The second route is more direct and has the potential to make money faster. But it comes with its own risks, and you have to invest your own money. And lots of it, too, if you hope to facilitate growth in any sort of real way. And of course, you need a strategy to market and build a readership.
Whichever route you choose, you need to do more than just write a novel. To make it as a writer now, you need to be up on social media, you need to be working to get your name out there, interact with readers, reward them.
The days of ‘built it and they will come’ are long gone. Heck, they were gone ten years ago. Twenty, even.
It’s hard to imagine, for those who haven’t sunk their fingers into publishing or self-publishing (and had their nails ripped off in the process), that making money as a published author requires you to pitch to a million agents and fail a million times before you get your foot in the door. Or that as a self-published author, that you need to put out three books a year, pay for professional editors, proofers, cover designers, put a yearly wage into advertising just to break even — while juggling a full-time job, and all the stresses of life. And yet, that’s the reality for so many of us.
Writing really is the easy part. And I see so many coaches and consultants saying ‘know your market’, ‘know your market’. But while the writing may be paint by numbers, it’s all the stuff that comes after that feels like being brained with a 3-litre tin of matt white emulsion.
I love that writing crime and thriller comes with the safety net of a blueprint. That the tens of thousands of writers before me have hewn a path through the bedrock of the industry that just needs following and innovating upon. Because, honestly, I think if every writer had to put out something truly original to have a shot of making it, well, that would just be too hard. At least for anyone who doesn’t have that blinding, raw natural talent or decades of experience.
I love writing, and for all its risks and tribulations, for all the bad reviews and the bad sales months, for the crushing publication dates and the last-second corrections before the upload deadlines, I’ve never been happier.
Writing is everything to me, and while it certainly has its ups and downs, its simplicities and its complexities, it’s an adventure. And it’s one I’m keen to continue, for as long as readers will have me.
The second book in Morgan Greene’s Jamie Johansson series, Rising Tide, is now available to buy.
Discover more of Morgan’s books on his Amazon page.