On a summer reading list – and an unfortunate omission

Bookshop chain Waterstones (no apostrophe these days, harrumph) has announced its Book Club Summer Reads this week. The list is varied and for avid readers, promises a luscious literary experience across the coming months.

Unfortunately, my debut novel, Singled Out, has – I can only presume, in some hideous accidental oversight – been omitted from this list of good and great summer reads of 2015.

I can’t begin to understand how this ghastly blunder could possibly have happened. I am dumbstruck. I can but apologise, because this incomprehensible failure means that instead of a simple ‘click to buy’ from a colourful e-mail landing in your inbox, you’re going to have to embark on a hunt for Singled Out, trailing through the Amazon, all by yourself.

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxIf you’re into sinister tales taking place in delicious settings, your search for Singled Out will reward you with a gripping read. It’s a gritty psychological story about one woman’s struggle to overcome her demons and snare a dangerous stalker. It all takes place on a summer holiday for singles in Turkey, where strangers come together and nobody is quite who they seem.

Yes, you read that right. Summer… summer holiday. Hey, you guys at Waterstones…. summer holiday! Wouldn’t this alone qualify for a place on your Book Club Summer Reads list? Wouldn’t it? No?

Oh.

I know. It’s hardly selling in its thousands. It won’t make you book-business guys rich – at least, not overnight. But what about when the bidding war breaks out over those options on a movie or a TV mini-series – when world-renowned production companies are fighting over the rights and A-listers are begging for a role? Maybe then? What was that you said? Cloud-cuckoo land? Oh, don’t be mean, guys. Don’t hit me when I’m down.

Fair enough, I can’t deny it; demand has been, well, modest. The truth? Singled Out has yet to attain three figures in the Sales column – but it’s close, it is. Sort of. Close-ish. But just think what a place on that Book Club Summer Reads list would have done for it. And I’m not just saying this out of blatant self-interest either. I think I could safely argue that, with a little display ingenuity, there’s a profit to be had for any bookshop from my modest literary endeavours. What about those magic tables – the ones that everyone, but everyone, makes for when they come through the doors? Imagine for a moment, how appealing that sultry sunset on the cover of Singled Out would look on one of those tables by the entrance – the one that says ‘Hot New Authors’ or better still ‘Sizzling Summer Holiday Reads’ perhaps. Imagine all the book-buying money-spending hands that would reach out for it.

Yes, that would work.

But hey, the list is written, the emails are out and it’s too late for all that business. So all I can do is grumple away under my breath and shake my metaphorical fist at the Book Club selectors. It gets it off my chest a bit at least.

So, friends, followers and readers – an apology: I’m sorry you’ll have to go a-hunting for Singled Out. I’m sorry you won’t ever find it at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, or even your quirky little independent bookstore. I’m sorry it’s only on Amazon and that – for the time being at least – you’ll have to go further than Amazon’s Top 100 lists to track it down. But if you look, you’ll find it. It’s there for your Kindle (a perfect medium, if ever there was one, to take with you on your… holidays), and for the traditionalists amongst us, it’s there in paperback too.

As for the Waterstones Book Club recommendations, I cannot tell a lie. Notwithstanding that single sloppy omission, it’s a great selection. If you’re an avid reader like me, it’s worth a look – and it’s worth a few of your pennies/cents (only the ones you’ve got left after you’ve picked up Singled Out though).

Meantime, I hope you’ll forgive my shameless opportunism. When I got that Waterstones Book Club email this morning, I just couldn’t resist it.

Just one more thing… of course… Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

What’s my genre?

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One of the things I struggled with when preparing the framework text for query letters/emails, was genre.  I’m a marketer in my current day job, so I understand perfectly well why it’s helpful for agents and publishers to be able to classify a book according to what category or categories it falls within.  Amongst other things, genre (and, by the way, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre) will point to a likely audience, set expectations as to the content and style, and drive decisions on cover design, marketing and promotion.

Knowing your genre means you can pinpoint authors whose books bear similarities to your own – although whether you indicate same to agents in your submission material is a matter of fierce debate here and there on the interweb.  Either (i) do it because it helps the agent figure out where you might sit in their talent stable or (ii) don’t do it because it makes you seem cocky and pretentious and you should let them be the judge. No help there then.

Inevitably for every mainstream genre, there are gazillions of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, and it’s up to you how far you navigate the tributaries, to arrive at a label which adequately categorises the novel you’re writing.

What follows here is not some great rambling on the whys and wherefores of genre – if you’re looking for guidance in categorising your own writing, Google is your friend.  There is already more help out there than you can possibly need in an entire literary lifetime.  This is about me and my genre, and how I got there.

The first issue was the question of literary vs commercial.  Commercial books – apparently – sell in large volumes to an audience which may not be sufficiently discerning – apparently – to mind that books in this category may – apparently – not be all that well written.  In commercial fiction – apparently – the plot is the only thing that matters. Everything else (characterisation, setting, sensory detail, realistic dialogue, linguistic style, grammar…) is inconsequential relative to the plot.  It may therefore have been thrown together and served up as a literary and linguistic dog’s dinner – and – apparently – nobody minds.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about the quality of the writing, and how poetic, evocative or mesmerising it is.  And the plot?  Who needs plotting when the writing, line by line, word by beautiful, witty, well-chosen word, is such a sublime joy to read.  Apparently.

For those of us who fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous (no, I’m not getting drawn on which is which, thank you very much) there is a wealth of options for that first level categorisation, amongst which Quality Commercial, Mainstream Literary, Literary-Commercial Crossover, Book Club, or even more specifically, ‘Richard & Judy’, and my personal bête noir, LitLite.

I vacillate between Quality Commercial and Book Club for Singled Out.  Books which end up on book club reading lists tend to offer plenty of scope for discussion around moral dilemmas, character qualities or shortcomings and so on – and I like that.  And Quality Commercial?  I don’t see what’s wrong with cherishing the vision that I’ve written something which might be simultaneously popular/saleable and well-written.  An agent or publisher will probably put me straight one of these days.

Next, there’s the subject and content of the story.  At the high level, is it a romance or a thriller?  Is it science fiction or magic realism, chic-lit or crime?  Is it humorous or historical, fantasy or satire, politics or parody? Is it erotic, domestic or dynastic?  And… breathe.  Yes, if you’ve looked into this, you’ll realise as I did, there are myriad ways to slice-and-dice for genre.  There’s a crime in my story, but it’s not, technically speaking, a crime novel – there’s no mystery (well, not much mystery) and no police (ah, almost no police).  There is a little romance and an erotic moment or two (no sniggering at the back please), but not enough to make it a romance and certainly not enough to position it on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Naughty.

Having read several (too many?) blog posts and articles, I think I’ve got there.  The genre I’ve concluded best fits Singled Out is Psychological Suspense. Theoretically this is a crime fiction sub-genre – but that’s as close as it’s going to get to crime.

The elements which characterise psychological suspense include the following:

  • Psychological suspense may use crime as a pretext for investigating psyche and personality, but the story is about the context of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
  • There’s often no mystery as to who committed the crime – what psychological suspense is interested in is not whodunnit, but whydunnit.
  • Psychological suspense is about the mind of a criminal – and the other people involved.  There will be insights, observations and reflection, from all sides of the house.
  • Psychological suspense stories are often told from multiple points of view – from inside the minds of protagonist and antagonist alike.
  • The overarching mood is one of dread or malignity – a sustained suspense embedded with moments of heightened tension, rather than a build-up to one massive peak.
  • Psychological suspense stories often feature psychologically damaged central characters such as sociopaths, or people with weaknesses, phobias, a tragic past, the weight of guilt or shame bearing down.
  • The reader can see what’s happening before it happens – they watch, seemingly helpless.  I liken it to the reader banging soundlessly on a window, trying to attract the attention of a character, who walks innocently towards some terrible scenario or event, content in the company of the person the reader knows to be dangerous.
  • Interestingly, psychological suspense is often ambivalent when it comes to ethics and justice.  There are moral ambiguities, few happy endings or easy solutions; and the baddies don’t always get what they deserve.

I’m fascinated by stories like this – they’re the ones I go to when I’m looking for a good read, and so it felt good to be writing one, even though it’s not what I set out to write.  I started out to pen a wry dissection of the comings and goings on a singles holiday. But when I realised this amounted to not very much and would bore a readership to tears, the landscape shifted.  And that’s when I begun to learn how much I loved writing about bad stuff happening and dark, damaged psyches.

Hey ho, happy days.