Are women hardwired to love thrillers?

A report in the Telegraph newspaper last week,written by thriller author Rebecca Whitney,highlights how it is women who predominantly read this genre of crime novels.


As Mark Twain observed – ‘There are three kinds of lies : lies,damned lies and statistics’ Some of the research findings quoted in this report,such as 68% of readers of thrillers are women,need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Any survey is dependent for its accuracy on many different factors. What’s produced from a poll taken at a conference of fans of crime fiction would produce different results to a street survey of passing shoppers.

This newspaper report makes a number of sweeping generalisations about how the sexes are hardwired differently,that had they been aimed at proving differences between the races,would have caused outrage. Nevertheless,the writer’s thoughts on how women relate to working out how to resolve an unhappy situation to restore order,is a precise way of summing up what happens in the story arc of a thriller.

Crime stories are one of the best selling genres of fiction,with the figure of 25% commonly bandied about for online sales. This partly influenced me,when I was thinking what to write about for my first novel as 2014 began. I’d already written fourteen short stories and novellas,as well as several hundred poems in the previous eighteen months. These tackled love and romance,science-fiction,the paranormal,self-identity and thrillers with a twist to them.

I had a number of concerns that I wanted to address about the state of modern society. These included CCTV,the dehumanising effects of video-gaming,exposure to violent images and how demobbed soldiers remain traumatised by what they’ve seen and done in combat zones. Such themes suggested a psychological thriller to me,and as part of the overall atmosphere of paranoia that I intended to create,I would emphasize how the system,the establishment,protects itself with cover-ups when it makes mistakes.

I worked long and hard on ‘The Perfect Murderer’,which took some 4,000 hours to produce. I was pleased with the result,while being unsure if it worked as a story that would grab a reader. Fortunately,a good and trusted friend volunteered to be my first reader. She has a fine mind and keen eyes,so is good at pointing out semantic mistakes and dodgy grammar. I was interested to know what she would make of the plot,as she doesn’t normally read thrillers.

The Perfect Murderer - a novel about a serial killer who makes no mistakes.

The Perfect Murderer – a novel about a serial killer who makes no mistakes.

I was pleased at recent feedback that I got from her,as she said something about smiling at the thought processes of a psychopathic murderer. This man is completely repellent in the way that he considers people,and in what he’s done by murdering a victim a year for forty years,but he’s superficially charming – to get what he wants from people,as psychopaths do. He also has his own physical frailties and eccentric preoccupations,so I tried to make him human through these – wrong-footing the reader,who suddenly realises that they’re feeling sympathy for a serial killer ! It looks like I pulled that trick off,from my friend’s reaction.
Writing is a bit like being a magician,in that you know how the trick is done,but you’re not sure if your sleight of hand and misdirection has worked on the audience.
Whether ‘The Perfect Murderer’ will sell is another matter. Its success may be assisted by my bumbling attempts at self-promotion through the social media,and also by my free book giveaway on Smashwords.
I hope that what Rebecca Whitney says about women being the main readers of thrillers is true,if the downloads of my erotic verse collection is any indicator of my potential reading public. 500 have taken ‘What Do You Like ?’,and I suspect that they are mainly female. I pray that they also like psychological thrillers,and that they remember my name when I publish the novel.
As a marketing strategy,giving away sexually suggestive poetry as a way of selling a novel featuring two sociopathic killers,sounds unlikely to me. But then who knows ? As the old saying goes – ‘You have to go fishing where the fish are’,which is what I’m trying to do.
I wonder if my bait will work.

Plot Development

I spent most of 2014 writing my first novel,called ‘The Perfect Murderer’. It’s about a serial killer,a veteran soldier who has become a player in real life role-playing game where the victims are really killed. His activities awaken the hibernating blood-lust of a psychopathic murderer,a man who is a respected member of the establishment. He would never be suspected of being homicidal,even though he’s killed once a year for forty years. The moral twist is,that the people he killed were all hardened criminals – so it could be argued that he’s been making society safer.

I started my writing with a loose and adaptable storyline. I didn’t want too rigid a plot,as I knew from previous experience that characters in a story can sometimes behave in ways that one can’t predict. I also reckoned that I’d be learning a lot about my subject matter as I went along,which might alter the narrative. The story involved a massive amount of research,including psychopathy,forensic pathology,police procedure,post-traumatic stress disorder,the conflict in Serbia and self-identity and personality.

I wasn’t sure how long the novel would be,and didn’t have a specific target to reach. Mind you,it was still a milestone to pass the 100,000 word mark,though that made me wonder quite how far I had left to go ! I anticipated that I’d end up at about 150,000 words. I was right,though after the climax of the hunt for the killer,I soon realised that my story had left a lot of characters’ fates unexplained,including several undiscovered corpses.

This can be a stumbling block with murder-mysteries. There are at least two unidentified bodies in ‘The Maltese Falcon’,though they were dismissed as red herrings. Nonetheless,I felt compelled to add an afterword which added another 18,000 words. This felt fitting and right,as I’ve always been a bit disappointed when a thriller simply ends as soon as the villain is dispatched.

It was more of a coda to the main part of the story,and it gives the reader some comfort about what becomes of the investigators after their harrowing experiences. It was rather discombobulating to finish,mainly because I wasn’t quite sure if the whole thing worked as a tale that would engage a reader’s attention. I’d varied the pace of the action,offering different points-of-view from the detectives and killers,thrown in a few dead ends and sprinkled several of my own red herrings around – but did it work as a psychological thriller ?

This was impossible for me to judge,for after all I knew what happened next ! Although I did a lot of editing as I went along,I still devoted ten weeks to going over everything with a fine tooth comb. When one examines any piece of art in this microscopic way,it ceases to be what it is to a consumer who’s enjoying it at face value,and becomes more of a tiresome obstacle course. I was appalled by what I’d missed,particularly in repeating nouns and verbs. The search function in Open Office Writer helped to identify these,though I was still uncertain about how well the plot developed and flowed.

While prowling the literary blogs recently,I came across one by Natalie M Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. One of her postings on ‘Adventures In Agent Land’ is about plot development,and is well worth a look. In fact,she offers really useful practical advice for any writer.

I was pleased to see,from a graph that she included,that the storyline of my novel conformed to what is reckoned to be the approved pattern.

This find was reassuring,and her dot method of judging the ebb and flow of a story is a useful tool to use. I’m still not sure how well my novel works as a reading experience,but I have a trusted and wise first reader who is currently working her way through it,and she says that it’s “gripping.” I am grateful for her assistance,as she’s pointed out several errors that needed straightening out in grammar and punctuation.

Writing,then editing a novel really is a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.


The Writer & Erotica

I was clearing my Hotmail Inbox this morning,and came across a bulletin from the site ‘The Art Of Manliness’.

I’ve subscribed to their postings for several years. The site tackles some interesting subjects,giving useful advice – though it’s unintentionally humorous at times. The old advertising photos that it uses to illustrate articles,have a certain whimsy. It’s free to sign-up to – see the subscription box at the side of their page.

The bulletin that caught my eye was by author Marcus Brotherton,and is titled The 5 Insanely Difficult Steps to Writing a Commercially-Published Novel’

After writing a novel in 2014,I particularly agreed with what he has to say about how hard it is to get your work known :

But I’d also say to be prepared for a heavy dose of reality. Commercial publishing is a mercenary business, and works of fiction are harder to get published than non-fiction books. Publishing fiction is a longshot at best, and there are no fail-safe solutions anyone can prescribe to guarantee you success.

So, I offer a paradoxical sort of encouragement. For anyone contemplating writing a novel, I’d give two messages: both “you can do it” and “beware,” at the same time. The caution means that almost anyone can write and publish a novel, true, but there’s a high price to pay to do it, for which you need to be prepared. I’d be doing you a disservice if I told you otherwise.

One of the main problems is that people tend to think that the actual writing of the book is the only battle they will face in the process. But the writing is only about a quarter of what’s needed. The second quarter is the fight to get your manuscript published. The next quarter is relentlessly marketing your book once it comes out, which publishers expect you to do these days.

Then the final quarter is going to primal scream therapy after your book sales fail miserably, because by then you’re depressed and broke and visionless, and insanely jealous of John Grisham, James Patterson, Ken Follett, and Lee Child—pretty much the only four male scribblers who actually make money at this game.

People who haven’t done it,think that the actual writing of a story is the difficult part,but it’s all of the business side of it that takes time,effort and patience.

I’ve been self-publishing online for about eighteen months,initially on Smashwords,then on Amazon. I write novels,short stories,novellas,poetry and song lyrics. Although I’m confident in the worth of my writing,the actual marketing of it has been both intriguing and frustrating.

Sales have been poor,so as a ploy to raise my profile I decided to give all of my books away for free two months ago. I hoped that this might help to launch my novel ‘The Perfect Murderer’,that I laboured so hard at in 2014. Downloads of my books picked up and were encouraging,for after all the price was right.

Help yourself,while they’re still free – you might need to turn off Smashword’s Adult Filter to see them all.

I decided to compile a couple more collections of my poetry,including some erotic verse. I published ‘What Do You Like ?’ on Smashwords ten days ago,and to my astonishment it’s been downloaded 361 times ! Had I been charging my usual $2.99 for poetry,and if they’d been prepared to pay,I’d have earned $1,079 or about £708.

I’m beginning to understand why there are so many stories about sex on Smashwords. I’ve been looking down my nose at them all a bit,thinking they were just jumping on the 50 Shades band-waggon. But if it’s sex that sells,then that’s what writers will write. I expect that many of them are like me,who were exasperated at their best literary efforts being ignored,so wrote something naughtier and were amazed at the results.

The next time that you see someone using a Kindle in public,to read a book,I bet that they’ll be secretly getting turned-on by something erotic ! The very anonymity of these e-reading devices has led to a boom in erotic writing.

I’m a long way from being a prude,but some of the titles that I see published appear to cross over the fine boundary between erotica and pornography. As the old adage goes – ‘ Being erotic is when you make love to someone using a feather. Pornographic is when you use the whole chicken !’

Writing fiction,one has to get into the mind-set of whoever you’re describing. This can have quite an effect,as I found when researching ‘The Perfect Murderer’ where I had violent nightmares about shady figures stalking me. I can’t say that writing erotica was particularly arousing though,but I’ve got enough happy memories to draw upon to make it sound realistic.

I’m really not sure what to tackle next,and whether I should ditch any literary aspirations at all,but write in a shallow,steamy and titillating way,promoting by book with sexual tags – erotic,sex scenes,kinky,insatiable etc,etc.

To add to my confusion,I put together a second collection of erotic verse,which I published at the weekend. I already had five poems about sex that were unpublished,so wrote four more. These were more overtly sexual than the others,to make the collection steamier. The irony is,that I felt about as erotic as a cold used tea-bag,as I sat here in 50 degrees wearing fifteen garments,including woolly gloves,and with my feet resting on a hot-water bottle.

I expected the new book ‘Chasing Big ‘O’ ‘ to be noticed and downloaded lots,for after all I’d used the alluring tags of ‘erotica’,’sex’ and ‘orgasm’ to describe it. To my surprise,only twenty people have downloaded it so far – I guessed that at least 100 would do so over the weekend. The reason that they haven’t may simply be down to the new book not having naked flesh on the cover. Instead it shows a fragmenting female statue. This means that readers aren’t even bothering to use the tags to search – simply looking for something that might be rude.

This amateur market research has only produced one firm conclusion – readers like erotic verse and stories.

I’m not the first writer to be confronted with this trap. One of my favourite crime authors is Lawrence Block,whose recovering alcoholic detective hero was partly instrumental in helping me to quit booze nineteen years ago. Like the famed writer Donald Westlake,Block started off his career writing porn paperbacks under a series of pen-names. Those were the days when such a trade was seen as shameful,rather than a reason for instant celebrity and admiration.

Onwards,and who knows where ? 

The Bad Sex In Fiction Award

Writing about any form of sexual activity in a story causes all sorts of problems. Not the least of these,is that the delight gained from sex is just about the most subjective thing one can do – what pleases one person might disgust another.

Just finding the words to describe any act of sex is awkward. Should one be earthy and use coarse expletives and four letter words,or be discreet with vague allusions and metaphors used to indicate the action and thoughts of the lovers ?

Even the finest authors stumble over this predicament. This led to the Literary Review founding an award in 1993 to acknowledge what they consider to be the worst description of a sex scene in a novel published in the preceding year. The given rationale is “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.

It’s aimed at literary authors,who are a bit up themselves,as an Australian might say. There’s reams of pornographic/erotic fiction in book form and online,of course – but this award appears to be trying to puncture pseuds who try to elevate their descriptions of copulation to an art form. Brits are prurient about sex anyway,so as soon as somebody starts to talk about it,let alone write about it,the sniggers begin. Some of the winners did produce some hilarious descriptions however.

Mind you,if you think about ways of describing any intense physical sensation,it’s tricky isn’t it ? Stuff like taking a motorcycle ride,eating a tasty meal,being moved by a favourite piece of music or having an orgasm are best experienced internally. Once you put them into words,it’s bound to detract from their power and pleasure.

This is partly why I wrote an unusual,out of left field,huh? sex scene in my new novel ‘The Perfect Murderer.’ I’m laughing up my sleeve a bit,imagining what readers will think about it. The activity involved is a paraphilia. I won’t say any more about it at the moment,as I’m still mulling over ways of publishing the book.

I haven’t tried writing anything erotic recently,though I feel that simple and concise would be more effective than anything too flowery. Years ago,I wrote erotic short stories to commission through an ad in the Erotic Folio Society ( long gone bust ),and the strangest one was for a woman who was drawn sexually to wardrobes – having sex inside them,on them and with them !

There’s nowt as strange as folk.

But you and I are completely normal,of course….

Here are two examples from the 2009 nominees,including the winning entry ( no pun intended ! ) by Jonathan Littell

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave (Canongate, £16.99)

Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro

“He slips his hands under her cotton vest and her body spasms and slackens and he cups her small, cold breasts in his hands and feels the hard pearls of her nipples, like tiny secrets, against the barked palms of his hands. He feels the gradual winding down of her dying heart and can see a bluish tinge blossoming on the skin of her skull through her thin, ironed hair.

“‘Oh, my dear Avril,’ he says.

“He puts his hands under her knees and manoeuvres her carefully so that her bottom rests on the edge of the settee. He slips his fingers underneath the worn elastic of her panties that are strung across the points of her hips, slips them to her ankles and softly draws apart her knees and feels again a watery ardour in his eyes as he negotiates a button and a zipper. It is exactly as he imagined it – the hair, the lips, the hole – and he slips his hands under her wasted buttocks and enters her like a fucking pile driver.”


The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (Chatto & Windus, £20)

The Kindly Ones by Jon Littell

“Una had stretched out on the bed of the guillotine; I lifted the lunette, made her put her head through it, and closed it on her long neck, after carefully lifting her heavy hair. She was panting. I tied her hands behind her back with my belt, then raised her skirt. I didn’t even bother to lower her panties, just pushed the lace to one side and spread her buttocks with both hands: in the slit, nestling in hair, her anus gently contracted. I spit on it. ‘No,’ she protested. I took out my penis, lay on top of her, and thrust it in. She gave a long stifled cry. I was crushing her with all my weight; because of the awkward position – my trousers were hindering my legs – I could only move in little jerks. Leaning over the lunette, my own neck beneath the blade, I whispered to her: ‘I’m going to pull the lever, I’m going to let the blade drop.’ She begged me: ‘Please, fuck my pussy.’ – ‘No.’ I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg.

If you’d like to read about the last round of the Bad Sex In Fiction Award for 2014,have a look at this link :