on switching genres: the benefits of being a reviewer

Look, it’s not a glamorous life, that of a reviewer. Sure, I get a lot of free books, and people at work think I am the Wise Old Elf of crime (it’s all a ruse), and some people even buy books that I say nice things about (augh! It makes me feel like I’m saying “Do you want fries with that?”), and I get paid an amount that doesn’t really reflect the amount of time spent, but frankly that’s because I spend way too long trying to figure out how to stick a stupid joke in five lines. Of course – and any reviewer knows this – you get really burnt out after a while, only being able to read books you have to read rather than want to read, even if you kind of do want to read them. Between these reviews, MWF, and my book club, the last time I read a book that I chose myself was six months ago when I went out for a long lunch on my own and took The Old Man and the Sea with me, because I knew I could finish it over my sandwich (and I did.) I’m not really complaining, of course – better too many books than not enough! – and the one thing I’m extra grateful for is that this job of reviewing around ten books a month for the Readings Monthly means that I have to go outside my comfort zone. Since I don’t want to just review ten books that fit into my specific criteria (well, of course I WANT to, but I probably should not), I need to make sure I cover a lot of ground, so almost every reader gets to hear about their favourite style of crime. So instead of just huddling up with my own favourites (which currently applies to southern USAmerican crime and, obviously, Australian crime, though preferably written by ladies) I have to taste all of it.

Sometimes, I still don’t like a certain genre, but I can distance myself enough to know that I can’t just push in my own preferences, and can objectively appreciate parts of it. I really stretch to enjoy historical military crime, even as I understand that military books have a huge following, but I did recently get swept up in Alan Furst’s A Hero in France (though that could’ve been because it was very short, which always makes me feel kindly towards a book in advance.) I’m not always partial to cosy styles unless I am in a particularly cranky mood and need to be soothed, but I still smashed the first third of Kate Saunders’ upcoming The Secrets of Wishtide without wanting to put it down. I am just about at the very end of my enjoyment of Scandinavian crime after reading approx 5,000 of them, but I’ll still give them a try. I didn’t think that I liked Lee-Childlike action thrillers, but every time I pick one up I genuinely enjoy them, so I’m glad I kept trying.

One style that I really struggle with at the moment is the British psychological thriller. There’s something about this current influx of books with twentysomething British women who are terribly normal and drink a lot and get caught up in some kind of giant murder case that I can’t wholly enjoy. It’s not really the plotting, which is always tight, but some kind of across-the-board sameness that means many of them feel like they’re written by the same author. Here’s where I confess  never read The Girl on the Train, because I picked it up, started it, and felt it had that samey writing style. If you like that style, which around one hundred million people do, then this is your time to swim happily in the sea of that style – and do that! I’m not the boss of what makes you enjoy literature. But when I pick up a book, and think, “Is this the new Paula Hawkins or Sabine Durrant or…?” then I’ve already lost interest – though I will gamely try, for my readers. I am nothing if not generous, and also humble.

in other news

While I’ve been off blatantly neglecting this blog (this is why I don’t buy plants), I do have a vaguely good reason – after my shortlisting for the Text Prize, I now have a literary agent, and to inflate my ego further there was even a press release about it here! (It’s behind a paywall, but you should totally join BplusP. It mentions that I’m one of Danielle’s first clients, that she’s super great, and I definitely do not have my fingers crossed behind my back when I claim that it says there will be publisher wars about it and I’ll immediately sell movie rights to Guillermo Del Toro and make billions.) Anyway, here’s to moderate success! *clinks glass on computer screen*

on writing: prologues

When I started writing my crime novel, I had this ridiculous grand idea that I would circumvent every cliché known to criminal/literarykind. It’s the same mindset I had when I was pregnant: I am going to be very special and different and everything will be perfect. Turns out, to get to where you need to be, you do need to sometimes feed a kid junk food just to keep your sanity; you do need to sometimes stick in a bloodthirsty prologue just to keep things sufficiently violent.

Prologues, those dastardly things that have you seeing the crime from the criminal’s point of view, or from decades earlier when something deadly and vaguely-to-desperately relevant happened, or from the end of the book as someone clings for life and regrets the turn of events that brought them here—we’ve all read them. They aren’t the measure of whether a book is good or not, but I usually found them frustrating. Just get into it! I don’t want the killer’s italicised thoughts all over the first three pages. Stop giving me spoilers! I hate spoilers.

Then without even realising, I’d written a prologue that had a sinister lead-up to the crime in my book—a murder—that was not entirely relevant and set months before the core events. Good work, brain! I’ll high-five myself right in the forehead. So for my third draft I ditched it, thinking the book would be stronger for it. And perhaps it is, but there’s one thing missing: criminal tension. Instead, I’ve had to set up the circumstances leading to the death and how my protagonist gets there, and while things trip along there is not much in the immediate way of danger. And if, like me, your crime doesn’t happen smack at the start – if it needs a few wheels oiled, a few characters introduced or a few blissfully unaware days to pass – it can be worrying to an author that things aren’t, well, criminal enough. “Is this even crime?” a reader may lament as twelve pages are spent with bunnies leaping through dainty meadows. Of course, on page thirteen there’s a cyanide-laced rabbit trap in the grass or a sniper out for revenge on the bunny that killed his mother, but readers aren’t to know that. So how do you rope them in and tie them to a chair if the peaceful meadow is necessary? Well, there are a few options: make it unnecessary and cut out the first few pages that you wrote a year ago that were a masterpiece then but, possibly, a bit incoherent now; or put in a prologue. Make it violent or up the stakes. Threaten the person we’re going to officially meet on page one. Steal someone’s money. Travel through a creepy house. Kick a puppy. Make it known that this is a crime book and shit is going to get real. Do that, or do it early in chapter one.

So here’s my one piece of barely-professional advice: write a prologue if you must, but for the love of genre fiction, don’t do it in italics. I know, guys, I know. But don’t.