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How to Write a Bestseller: Tips from an Editor

Frankie Gray is Senior Commissioning Editor for crime and thrillers at Transworld. She shared her thoughts with us on what it takes to write a bestseller.

In the world of crime fiction, what do you think makes the difference between a good book and a bestseller?

Countless excellent books don’t achieve the bestseller status they richly deserve. That said, there is something that all bestselling books have in common: the desire they elicit in readers to discuss them, to recommend them and in so doing perpetuate their sales. Personal recommendation is one of the most powerful selling tools there is and it’s worth bearing this in mind – what would people talk about having finished your book? This isn’t to say that you need to reveal that the killer is a three-headed monster or something just as ridiculous, but it’s worth considering, whilst also retaining your vision for the book and its integrity.

Are there any devices or techniques that a writer could employ to ensure they are working towards writing a bestseller?

If we apply the logic that what makes a bestseller is a talking point, and that these are novels that inflame a reader’s curiosity/ire/mirth/heartstrings then I think it’s important to think about what the well-versed crime reader will be expecting in a novel of this genre:
TO BE SURPRISED – Everyone loves a reading experience that takes them in an unexpected direction, and leaves them at an unforeseen destination. Many crime novels use twists to great effect and a cracking twist, which surprises and astonishes the reader, can encourage personal recommendation; who are they going to discuss their shock with if no one they know has read the book?!
TO BE AFRAID – The majority of crime novels will – to varying degrees – scare their readers. Whether producing outright terror or just one or two chilling images, the most successful novels in the genre will give the reader a lasting memory that they’d rather forget!
TO BE ENGAGED – All authors would hope that their writing engages, intrigues and excites their readers. In reading a crime novel we are expecting to be brought in to the investigation, and given clues that we can understand, ponder and perhaps even solve. An easily solved mystery isn’t always fulfilling, but neither is an impossible one – be wary of the frustrated reader…
NOT TO BE DISAPPOINTED – The reading experience is hugely affected by the expectation that a reader brings to it. How often has a perfectly good book disappointed you because it had been lauded as ‘the best book ever’ but failed to quite live up to that? As with all these points, it’s important that you don’t become bogged down in thinking about them, at the expense of your writing. However, it’s worth considering the expectation your reader will be bringing to the novel, but also the assumptions they’ll make as they read. This is most applicable in relation to twists. Building up to a twist can be a handy narrative trick for propelling the reader through the book, as they race to discover the truth. But beware of letting them down when they get there. It’s fine to surprise them – in fact it’s probably the best result – but the outcome should be believable and anything but disappointing. A satisfying or memorable ending can be crucial in eliciting reader buy-in to an author, and is particularly important with a series.
TO BE ENAMOURED/INTRIGUED – Character is always important but if you’re planning a crime series, it’s particularly so. A compelling, complex character can provide readers with the motivation to buy the subsequent books in the series, particularly if there’s an intriguing suggestion that there’s much still to be discovered about this character…

Do you feel crime fiction is out of new ideas? Are the same clichés just being rehashed, or do you continue to see new and intriguing plot lines coming through?

Unlike other areas of the market, many crime readers are self-confessed ‘crime-fiction fans’ and as such will know what to expect from the genre. There is consequently a fine line to tread between satisfying the expectation people bring to their reading experience and having iterations of the same books over and over again. In this regard, I think character is key. Elements of crime novels may share similarities to other novels but a strong central character (or characters) offers the best opportunity to do something different, original and intriguing.

There’s also an interesting trend towards genre-boundary-pushing novels: crime novels that have a hint of the supernatural, of fantasy or of horror. It can sometimes be challenging to get these books to readers, as the messaging can be more complicated when it comes to title, cover and copy (the simplified message we send to the prospective reader), but it’s a fascinating evolution of the genre. I would advocate caution, though. It’s clear to everyone – agent, editor, retailer, reader – when an author has compromised the integrity of their writing and is consciously writing to market. Write what you want to, not what you think others will want to read.

Which clichés would you advise a crime writer to avoid?

As above, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between a cliché and a trope that readers love to see in crime novels. Personally, I count as a cliché anything which feels lazy, particularly character devices that feel like shortcuts. For example, drinking. There are countless alcoholic central characters and it’s often used as a way of communicating a damaged and conflicted soul. If their alcoholism is serving a purpose, fine. If it’s a way of telling the reader something about them without having to think of other, more complex ways to do so then I’d rather see those explored.

What advice would you give to a novice writer starting in the genre of crime fiction?

1. Read – You can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader
2. Immerse yourself in the genre – Read widely in the crime genre; know your competition, know your market.
3. Get involved – The crime community offers a huge wealth of opportunities to do so, whether attending festivals or events, or engaging online with the rest of the community.
4. Plot –Think carefully about your plotting throughout. Exposition is key.
5. Be patient – The process can take a long, long time: to write, to get an agent, to get a book deal and, hopefully, to sell well. Be patient, take advice, be kind and keep the faith.
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