SO …steering away from recent over-politcial blog posts (well, if you call January recent that is) …I’ve just delivered second draft of thriller 6 to my lovely editor (lovely at the moment, ‘til she tears it apart J ). Now as I try to unclaw my hands from my laptop – & return to the land of the living, I have a few questions about the world of my ‘craft’…
At the recent London Book Fair 2016, some 6/7 figure deals were announced (££££): for ‘HIGH CONCEPT’ thrillers, prompting a fascinating Twitter chat with author Sophie Hannah about what ‘high concept’ actually means in crime writing. Sophie reckons it just means a ‘brilliant idea’, citing the doyenne of crime, Agatha Christie, and various of her novels eg Murder on the Orient Express. Very high concept; and in the end, we agreed the term probably just means a great ‘hook’ – as in hooking the reader in!
So is HIGH CONCEPT just sales-speak? The publishing industry is ALL about sales today. If you can claim you’re providing something new, you may stand a better chance of a big deal…but – there’s a BIG difference between being a decent writer and a big seller/ salesperson. In my book (yeah, sorry!), the beauty of a good thriller lies in a gripping story, written well – brilliantly, if you’re lucky. A twist can be good, but a great book can’t be all about the twist. High concept often seems to mean a great idea which then fails to deliver eg isn’t executed well enough to stop up plot-holes. Many ‘high concepts’ out there don’t stand up to scrutiny in my humble opinion: I won’t name them here, because that’s not nice, but sometimes I wish we could just call a spade a spade and not try and dress it up as a ‘gleaming garden implement of new fangled metal’. It’s prob just a blinking spade, albeit a well-constructed one.
Between book deals a few years ago, an Orion editor asked if my next book: ‘Could be high concept – like Lullaby was?’ Well, Lullaby, my first novel, published in 2007, is about a young mum on a day-trip to the Tate when her husband and baby go missing…her husband turns up unconscious and beaten, the baby still missing…Doesn’t seem very ‘high concept’ to me now: more a straightforward if scary idea: a young woman driven to distraction searching for her beloved child for the next few weeks…
Back at the drawing-board, I came up with my latest thriller, 24 HOURS: the story of a woman mistaken for dead in a fire that’s killed her best friend. Laurie thinks the fire was set to kill her – and hiding under the mistaken identity buys her 24 hours of anonymity to get back to her young daughter – before the killer does. High concept? Set in ‘real time’, it is quite frenetic, but you can decide about the concept bit…In my world, trying to find a ‘high concept’ just meant extra pressure on top of writing what’s hopefully a decent story.
So, the downside of high concept is high PRESSURE – to deliver. And 6 figure deals are high pressure too. Amazing, no doubt – we all want to pay the mortgage off – but I know writers who’ve got them and then not sold well – and it hasn’t helped careers.
I am not a good salesperson; I get pretty tongue-tied. (I wasn’t very good at folding t-shirts at Benetton either, in my first sales job aged 15!). I’m not confident about selling myself, that’s why I’m a writer, sitting at home alone. I’m not brilliant at the ‘nut-shell summary’ or the ‘elevator pitch’. My first agent said often ‘you’re very ‘marketable’, Claire’. I didn’t know what she meant. (My editor says it’s code for ‘alright looking’). Whatever, it was a good thing, apparently. Why? Who knows… In case I ever got invited on Richard & Judy or Loose Women? I didn’t, so it was irrelevant. ( i live in hope though ladies 🙂 )
In Sat’s Guardian Review, there was a great article about plot by John Mullan – here – pointing out that Dickens, Wilkie Collins et al were masters of it, and they’re considered literary today – but us crime writers with our plot-driven books are a bit infra dig (I might have to google that expression; can’t quite remember if it’s right!). Still, Mullan argued, plot is good – if it works. Phew. So all us crimies (I just made that up. That’s awful isn’t it? I won’t use it again but I’m tired today, and it’s been a long year of writing already!)…anyway all us thriller writers can feel validated! HURRAH!! PLOT IS GOOD!!!!
And on that note, I’ll sign off with a comment about ITV drama ‘MARCELLA’ that finished last night. Well. Created by The Bridge writer, Scandi Hans Rosenfeldt, let me just say this. Maybe The Bridge worked because us Brits can’t actually understand what’s going on – or maybe because Saga was a great character (though not sure how many series I could watch her for). Whereas, as a British drama, Marcella just became untied up loose ends, worse than my teenage attempt at knitting. Quite gripping at times perhaps – but IT DOESN’T COUNT IF IT DOESN’T ADD UP. Why exactly was the serial killer killing???? No explanation. Only a familial motive for one of the murders – & a bit of psychopathy thrown in, with a policewoman who would have been taken off the case at least 10 times during the action – just isn’t good enough. (Did make me scream though, right at the end. A proper scream!). I’m all for suspending disbelief – but in a credible way, yeah? You get me?! With a character I actually maybe slightly care about. Just saying. THank you and hopefully see you at Crimefest / Greenwich Book Festival (see links on UPCOMING 🙂
Over & Out 🙂