When Is A Thriller Not A Thriller?

At a writers’ conference recently I availed myself of the opportunity to get some feedback on my novel from a professional, published author.  I had to submit in advance the first five pages, along with a synopsis, and was then granted ten minutes of one-to-one discussion.

The good news was he liked my writing. Yay!  What he wanted to talk to me about, he said, was how I was going to pitch my book to agents when it came to submitting. What kind of book was it?  ‘Well, it’s a literary psychological thriller,’ I told him. This is a phrase I have been using for some time now to describe my book.  The author advising me has written thrillers and comic novels.  He challenged me to be more specific.  ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s more psychological than thriller.’ He nodded and said, ‘It’s not really a thriller, is it?’ ‘Well, no.’

For some time now I have had a creeping unease about the way I describe my book.  When people say, ‘What kind of book are you writing?’ and I say, ‘A psychological thriller,’ they generally say, ‘Oh that’s my favourite type of book,’ and I think, ‘Great.’  And then I think, ‘Help!’

I have the feeling they’re expecting my book to be something rather different to what it actually is.  It’s nice to think you’re writing something that’s going to be popular. It’s nice to think this might increase your prospects of getting an agent. But, as this writer pointed out to me, the market is pretty much saturated with psychological thrillers and it’s no good trying to compete against them with a book that doesn’t meet the mark.

He emphasised to me the importance of getting the pitch right. You must be accurate in how you describe your book to others.  You must give them a sense of which other books it lies comfortably alongside.  I always thought you weren’t supposed to say, ‘it’s a bit like so-and-so with a touch of so-and-so,’ but apparently you can and you should.

The kind of books with which I would align my novel are not, generally speaking, those that would find themselves in the thriller section of the bookshop. I think it would be more accurate to describe my book as a psychological drama.  It contains elements of a thriller, but its overriding purpose is not to thrill, other than in the sense that all books should thrill i.e. should engage the reader, but not in a who’s-behind-the-door kind of way.

It’s no fun reading a comic book that isn’t funny. Or a horror story that isn’t scary. It could be that such a book fails to meet its remit because it’s poorly executed, or it could be that the remit to which it has attached itself is inaccurate and misleading.  Though I still hope lovers of thrillers will enjoy my novel, I shan’t be referring to it as a thriller from now on.

When is a thriller not a thriller? When the author feels a sense of relief at not calling it one any more.


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3 Responses to When Is A Thriller Not A Thriller?

  1. Interesting. Pitches are hard. A book I just read, The Search by Geoff Dyer, starts out all Chandler and then veers off in another direction. A little way in comes a throwaway sentence that could be a mission statement: “The residue of concentration required to keep the car on the road lent these thoughts a sense of urgentless purpose”. Which is what the book has also. In a thriller, urgent purpose is presumably more typical. The jacket and last line on the back cover still say thriller. Or maybe ‘arty thriller’.

    • claudia says:

      ‘Urgentless’ doesn’t sound very thriller like, does it? But I do think lots of books have very misleading back cover statements. I try not to read them, but to come to the book with as little in the way of preconceptions as possible. Sometimes it feels like pitches and synopses are harder than writing the bloody book.

  2. First I kind of like urgentless, but it did not make the back cover!

    Re blurb writing, totally agree – also harder to write for yourself than for others, maybe we should do a trade, and see where we get…. good luck with it anyway…

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