What prompts an author to do a dramatic about turn with their career and decide to opt for a complete change of genre?
For me it was a number of factors – a midlife (turning 40) crisis perhaps? The desire for change – and the need to challenge myself to go well outside of my writing comfort zone.
By 2015 I had published eight novels, all falling into the Commercial Women’s Fiction genre. I enjoyed writing each one – and each one had provided its own challenges which I had taken on and managed. But I had grown restless.
I decided to tackle this restlessness by going a bit darker, maybe. Dropping some of the comedy from my books to dig even deeper into more serious issues handled in a more serious manner. The result, I can admit with the passing of time, was a fairly uninspiring draft of a book that will become my book to forever reside in a drawer. I didn’t think that at the time, however, and as the rejections for the book rolled in (with lots of “nearly, but something is missing” thoughts) I wondered if I had made a mistake in trying to change how I wrote.
After all, my eight books had all enjoyed a degree of success and this “new me” voice hadn’t lit up the world.
But I knew, as I went back to the drawing board, that something in me had changed. The wisdom of Beckett came to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
So I decided to try again and soon after, I had my lightbulb moment thanks to the generosity of an editor who took the time to meet me for lunch and talk over my hopes and dreams.
Before we met, I had pulled an idea which had started off as a fairly grim dream onto the page. I pulled in elements of the modern world (specificially how social media allows a very public reaction to any tragedy) and I started working, and reworking, and working. I sent the first couple of chapters it to the lovely editor hoping she would tell me this book had the “something” that had been lacking from the book in the drawer.
The word “thriller” hadn’t yet entered my consciousness. In my mind you had to be exceptionally clever and be the kind of person who had Post It notes on every surface to write a thriller. Having always been a “seat of my pants” writer – taking an idea and letting the characters lead me where they wanted to go – the idea of methodically planning a thriller – including multiple twists and turns was much too intimidating.
I’d write this dark but not too dark – like still sort of women’s fiction-y. The editor disagreed.
“Unleash your dark side,” she said. “Give yourself permission to write what you need to write. To really delve into the story.” Half measures, she told me, nicely and with the a smile and a huge amount of support, wouldn’t cut it.
Those words came to change everything.
I walked away from this invaluable chat feeling challenged, a bit scared but most of all – excited. I could do this. I could go dark. I could write whatever I wanted if I just took off the stabilisers, let my imagination run wild and give myself permission to go outside that very safe comfort zone, which I didn’t feel challenged me enough anymore.
But I had to start at the beginning. This felt like writing my first book all over again. I had to do my research. So I read widely in the genre. I read all about plotting and characterisation and structure. (I became addicted to the blog posts of Chuck Wendig who made all this book writing learning exceptionally accessible and entertaining).
I bought notebooks – drew diagrams. My friends bought me notebooks, and inspirational cards and told me I could this.
I played a lot of “what if” games with the plot – some scenarios simply ridiculous. Others which made me feel all tingly and excited. I wrote out massively in-depth character notes on my main characters – so that before I started writing the actual book I knew them inside and out – from their favourite foods, to their quirks, to their fashion sense. They were already real people and I already had an idea of how they would react to what I would put them through.
I plotted chapters – meticulously.
I rewrote my notes – updated them.
I drew more diagrams – great big spidery things where I let my imagination run wild.
When I wrote my chapters, I took a break and then looked at them again – and made them darker. I edited each chapter perhaps four times – honing, cutting excessive description, getting in the flow of writing for a new genre.
I felt consumed by the book – it was exhilarating. I felt challenged, excited, scared – but there was something in the pit of my stomach that told me I was doing the right thing.
I took the skills I had honed writing my previous books to add a deeply human, empathetic, real edge to the characters. I delved into their minds. I felt they were with me all the time – especially my main character of Alex. She was a constant in my life.
I wrote like I had never written before – hours and hours and thousands of words flying onto the page.
I wrote a thriller – and I packaged it all up in a lovely little submission package and sent it out in the world, via my agent, Ger Nichol – and hoped this time I had done it.
And I had – the “nearly” became a yes from Phoebe Morgan, editor at the prestigious Avon imprint of Harper Collins. She loved the book. She wanted to know more. I did more. I made it better again – wondered if I was simply going to fail better.
Now I’m looking at a June 2018 release and I’m starting the craziness of writing a thriller all over again with my second book in the two book deal I secured.
For the buzz and the writing experience alone – I have no regrets. It has been the most personally rewarding writing experience of my life to date.
Her Name Was Rose will be published by Avon in June 2018.
You can pre-order a copy online here.
(c) Claire Allen