The Crime Writers' Association

The Debuts

Finding the Fandom: how to use readers’ expectations to write your debut, by Cal Moriarty

Crime is the biggest selling fiction genre in traditional publishing and crime writers are grateful for every voracious reader out there. Those dedicated readers will often know their favourite genre or sub-genre inside out. They know what to expect in their favourite reads, and as a writer you should recognise and internalize what those expectations are. Most importantly, you should understand that in order to stand out from the thousands of other debut novelists you will need to over-deliver on that expectation because the sweet spot of success is in batting out of the park rather than just hitting the ball to first base like that other writer.

Surprise & delight your reader – and agent

Surprising and delighting your reader is the key to success. Similar but different is the refrain you’ll hear over and over from many a jaded publisher. When you are sending your debut manuscript to agents you want to announce your arrival on the scene. Agents’ inboxes are overwhelmed with manuscripts, so do what you can to wow them, not underwhelm them. If you are going to send your manuscript to leading crime authors’ agents, you’d better believe that so has every other debut crime author. The agent you are submitting to, depending on their time in the industry, will have read everything submitted/available on the market in the past decade or two – so, impressing them is no mean feat.

With that tricky task in mind, think about how you might upend your sub-genre. Are you writing legal thrillers? Think about how you might tell that reader favourite from a different perspective than that of one of the lawyers, the jury, the judge, the accused, the accuser? Who else is present in the courtroom for the duration of the case: one of the clerks, the stenographer, the prison officers, a member of the public in the gallery? A reporter? The work experience kid? Has someone planted a camera or a listening device somewhere in the courtroom? Why are they watching and who? Try and tell the story from an unusual POV – it will help your work stand out from the rest of the slush pile and help you find that sweet spot to surprise the reader.

Learning from published authors

Author Kate Helm who writes across genre and whose psychological thriller The House Share is published in May this year sees audience expectations as “fun and a challenge, rather than a creative straitjacket”. Kate thinks it’s important for the more commercially minded author to “understand what story and tone readers want” and how you the author want your reader to feel at particular moments and ensuring you deliver that. Kate does this as she plans out her novel. So, if you want to save yourself endless headaches, ensure you are going to hit those expectations before you even put the first word on that blank novel page.

When novelist Rowan Coleman moved to writing her historical Victorian crime novel, The Vanished Bride, about the Brontë sisters, her ‘debut’ in that sub-genre, she felt her audience would want at least three red herrings and that there must be at least four suspects to keep the intrigue going. Also, Rowan identified that her audiences would want a certain balance between humour, charm, gothic darkness and violence. Rowan wanted to deliver a twist at the end that would hopefully surprise, yet also make complete sense in retrospect. But, bearing in mind that the audience is a 21st century audience, Rowan felt her audience would better identify with the novel if it mirrored contemporary circumstances rather than an unfamiliar 19th century issue. Rowan says, “Finding the pace the readers were familiar with in that genre was also key. Then because my detectives are real people from history I also had to ensure my portrayal of them was both fun, fictional and as authentic as possible. I’m blessed that Brontë fans and readers in the US and UK have responded well so far.”

To gauge what readers are responding to right now, read the top 10 novels from your sub-genre (Amazon, as a search engine, is a great real-time source for this information). Then try to ascertain how you might use the elements readers are responding to when you write your debut. I’m not suggesting you chase the market because today’s market most likely won’t be the same in two years (the traditional publishing lead time). But that sub-genre will no doubt still exist, with a committed readership, so try and leapfrog those two years in the most imaginative way you can, to ensure your debut will stand out from the crowd in 2022.

Cal Moriarty is an award-winning screenwriter, director, producer, novelist and educator. Her debut novel The Killing of Bobbi Lomax was long-listed for the CWA John Creasey New Blood award, 2015. Her second, Ten of Swords is out next summer from Faber. She is currently writing her third. Cal loves sharing her knowledge and has taught screenwriting to some of the world’s finest authors

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