Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, reveals how she knew it was time to switch tracks
In another life, under another name, I wrote books with (relatively) happy endings; books about love and friendship. Two of the four ‘Amy Silver’ novels were moderately successful. The final one, over which I slogged for two agonizing years, sold around 1,000 copies, leaving me almost broke and almost broken. My confidence shattered, I started to fear that fiction was not my game.
Fortunately, my agent had no such fears: she was well aware of my highly-developed dark side and suggested I come up with a few thriller ideas we might chat about. I put together a list of four or five storylines, one of which was about a drunk girl who witnesses something shocking from her train.
Writing that book felt unlike writing any other. It felt like coming home. We connected, that book and I, in a way that I had never connected with the ones that went before, so it seemed right that when it was submitted to the publishers, it was with my name – the real one – on the title page.
I don’t regret the years spent writing my Amy Silver novels; I believe those books laid the groundwork for the one that came next. But finding my real home – the genre in which I feel I now belong – was a revelation. So if you’re finding that you and your books aren’t quite connecting, it’s probably not you; it’s them.
Here are five signs you might be writing in the wrong genre:
1. You find yourself wanting to do inappropriate things to your characters.
That sounds filthier than I intended: what I mean is, in commercial genre fiction, you need to consider your readership. Why did your reader pick up your book? What did they think they were getting? I suspect, in hindsight, that the people who bought Amy Silver’s books hadn’t bargained on car accidents, cancer and people being blown to bits with improvised explosive devices. My readers might not have minded a hint of darkness, but I piled tragedy upon tragedy, I wallowed in misery and delved into death. I wrote stories utterly at odds with the sunny and sparkly book jackets purporting to represent them.
2. You’re unfaithful.
You’re sitting at your desk, working diligently on your current oeuvre, but your mind is wandering, you can’t stop thinking about the other book and all the things you long to do with it.
3. You don’t speak the language.
Writing in the wrong genre is like trying to have a conversation in a language you’re still learning: you know what you want to say but you can’t quite express it, not the way you know you could in your own language. You feel duller, less incisive than you know you can be.
4. You are tempted to use a pseudonym.
The romantic fiction books I wrote weren’t bad – they had plenty to recommend them. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t proud of them. They just didn’t feel like me.
5. The ideas dry up.
When I moved from romance to crime, I was suddenly spoiled for choice: I’d gone from struggling to come up with one decent storyline to being overwhelmed with plots I’d been storing up, toying with and trying for size. Right now, if I open my ideas file, I’ll find dozens of grisly opening scenes and tantalising premises waiting to be teased out into something more substantial.
One final note:
There are many reasons to try a different genre, but chasing commercial success is not one of them. I’ve been asked many times whether I chose to write thrillers because I noticed that Gillian Flynn was doing alright for herself. It doesn’t work like that. You have to write the best book you can; it just so happens that the best books I can write invariably involve bloody murder.
Paula Hawkins worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction. Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, she moved to London in 1989 and has lived there ever since. The Girl on the Train, published in January 2015, is her first thriller.