The Lost Ones is my tenth crime-thriller and the first book in my fourth series. Yes, fourth. To the uninitiated, writing a book is something fun you might do, if only you had the time. But what they don’t realise is that novel-writing is highly skilled, hard work, and to get published and stay published, you have to write the right thing well. What do I mean by writing the right thing? Well, you might be able to pen beautiful prose, draw believable and compelling characters and/or come up with an amazing plot, but is it right for the market? Will readers want to buy it?
Agents generally sign authors if they like the writing but also, crucially, if they can see a market for the book. On submission, editors will offer on a book only if they are convinced it will sell. Editorial meetings are a collaborative process, where a whole team – including sales and marketing – will often make the decision on a submitted manuscript, based on a book’s saleability, as much as the quality of writing. So, here lies the rub: You might write up a storm, but thanks to timing (e.g. Covid has affected editorial tastes massively), your story might no longer be saleable. Or perhaps there’s too much going on in your novel and the editor thinks there would be too much rewriting to be done. Perhaps your manuscript is thin on story. Or maybe your book simply wouldn’t appeal to a wide enough range of readers – niche appeal can be the death of a manuscript’s fortunes. It’s all very well telling writers not to chase the market (books are commissioned a good couple of years before they ever appear on shelves in a bookstore or supermarket, so by the time you write that story about the ninety-nine-year-old woman, climbing out of the window and disappearing, the market may have moved on to supernatural romance or misery memoir) and to write what they want, but I believe in balance in all things. If you’re going to be a long term success, you need to understand the world of publishing and crucially, the market, because some stories have perennial appeal and some don’t.
What’s my advice to make your manuscript as attractive as possible, then? Well, let’s start right at the beginning. Research long before you start to write. Read widely in a genre or sub-genre that you enjoy and want to write in. Select books that have become Kindle and/or Sunday Times Bestsellers, and try to work out why they’re so popular. Are there storytelling techniques that you can deploy in your own writing? Is there something about the story and characters at the heart of those books that have universal appeal? Or has the setting and period of the novel captivated readers? Learn from those who are successful, even if their writing is not precisely to your taste. Even if you personally think the writing is poor, there will be something that made it a hit, beyond marketing spend. Is it a killer concept (usually, this one’s a deal-breaker in commercial fiction)? Is it voice? Is it character?
Now, having read the best-sellers, you should have a better understanding of what makes a hit, and you might now have a vague idea about your own storyline. But that’s not going to be enough to catapult you into a 90,000+ words-long masterpiece. So, read around the subject. If you want to set your book in, say, Haiti, make sure you research Haiti thoroughly, because its history, its people and the nature of their contemporary life and the way the place looks and its climate and political issues will help shape your story. Similarly, if you want your lead character to be a doctor in Haiti, find out all you can about the profession as well as access to medical care in the country. Perhaps you’ll discover that your initial idea simply won’t fit and you’ll get another better idea falls into place. But you must start with the facts or your story and world-building won’t stand up to scrutiny. If you’re writing fantasy, develop a fairly clear and detailed picture of your world before you start to write.
I generally spend an entire month researching full-time, before I even develop a synopsis, because the research will always inform the story, and those plot- and relationship-ideas will coalesce to give me the underpinnings of a good book. Coming up with inspiration for The Lost Ones, for example, I re-read the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the prolific serial killer. Despite the fact that the trend for psychological thrillers and cosy crime persists, my personal enthusiasm – and importantly, readers’ enthusiasm – for the serial killer-thriller/police procedural sub-genres never wanes. You can sell a book like that, and editors know it.
With the nuts and bolts of murder-hunt fresh in my mind, I thought about the sort of protagonist I’d like to work my story around, because your main character is key – especially if you’ll be writing a series. I knew my readership was generally 45+ women, so I decided to make Detective Sergeant Jackson Cooke – Jackie to her friends – an older mother of nine-year-old twin boys, heavily pregnant with her third child. There are so many women out there in the real world who, like Jackie, are the main breadwinners in a man’s world, yet who are still expected to come home and snap on the rubber gloves and do the book at bedtime. Jackson Cooke is therefore relatable for my readership. See what I’m doing there? I keep my readers in mind from the very start.
So, your checklist should be: Have I done my research? Is my story appropriate for the sub-genre I want to write in, i.e. similar enough to resonate with readers, but different enough to offer something fresh? Is my main protagonist someone readers can get behind? What’s left is plot and skilful execution. Is my concept attention-grabbing? Finally, have I written the best story I could possibly write? If you can answer yes to all of those questions, perhaps you’ve written the right thing and that deal is just around the corner!
(c) Marnie Riches
Author photograph (c) Phil Tragen
About The Lost Ones:
The girl is sitting upright, her dark brown hair arranged over her shoulders and her blue, blue eyes staring into the distance. She looks almost peaceful. But her gaze is vacant, and her skin is cold…
When Detective Jackie Cooke is called to the murder scene, she has to choke back tears. Missing teenager Chloe Smedley has finally been found – her body left in a cold back yard, carefully posed with her bright blue eyes still open. Jackie lays a protective hand on the baby in her belly, who seems to kick out in anguish, and vows to find the brutal monster who stole Chloe’s future.
Breaking the news to Chloe’s mother is heartbreaking, and Jackie is haunted by the woman’s cries. She knows too well the terrible pain of losing a loved one: her own brother went missing as a child, the case never solved. Determined to get justice for Chloe and her family, Jackie sets to work, finding footage of the girl waving at someone the day she disappeared. Did Chloe know her killer?
But then a second body is found on the side of a busy motorway, lit up by passing cars. The only link with Chloe is the shocking way the victim has been posed, and the mutilated body convinces Jackie she is searching for a disturbed and dangerous predator. Someone has been hunting missing and vulnerable people for decades, and only Jackie seems to see that they were never lost. They were taken.
Jackie’s boss refuses to believe a serial killer is on the loose and threatens to take her off the case. But then Jackie returns home to find a brightly coloured bracelet on her kitchen counter and her blood turns to ice. It’s the same one her brother was wearing when he vanished. Could his disappearance be connected to the murders? Jackie will stop at nothing to catch her killer… unless he finds her first…
An absolutely gripping crime thriller that will keep you racing through the pages. Fans of Kendra Elliott, Rachel McLean and Val McDermid will love The Lost Ones.
Order your copy online here.