13 October 2023
The author describes moving from fantasy to thrillers, and offers tips for writers thinking of changing genre
A few years ago, I did a signing tour at Waterstones stores in the north of England to publicise my fantasy novel, Red Tide. From time to time, I would be approached by shoppers who didn’t realise I was an author. (Apparently the posters and the table of books in front of me weren’t enough of a hint.) Mistaking me for a member of staff, they would ask me where the crime or the thriller section was.
Sorry, I can’t help you, I would say. But do you read fantasy?
George Martin’s Game of Thrones has brought fantasy into the mainstream, but there are still people who regard its fans as three arrows short of a quiver. So, when I explained to shoppers that I was a fantasy author, typically they would look aghast, then hug their children close and look around for the nearest exit.
That isn’t why I decided that my next novel would be a thriller. Over the course of the past few years, my reading tastes have moved from fantasy to thrillers, and as the saying goes, you should write what you read. What about the writing process, though? Is writing a thriller different from writing a fantasy book?
Generally, I would say there are more similarities than disparities. Plotting, characterisation, humour . . . the process is the same for both genres. But there are some important differences:
I don’t know why, but fantasy books seem to be longer than novels from other genres. And not just a little bit longer either. Typically, a book cannot truly be considered a fantasy novel unless it is thick enough to deflect small-arms fire. Red Tide was over 200,000 words long. Whereas my thriller All Lies Hidden is less than half that.
The fantasy I write is multi-threaded fantasy, with various storylines that weave together to form a larger tale. This brings an added layer of complexity to the writing. When I finished the first draft of Red Tide, I realised that the story of one of the characters was spread over five days, whereas everyone else’s was spread over four. Cue some re-writing (and self-admonishment).
Also, it is a challenge to preserve the distinctive voice of different characters when you are frequently jumping between them.
In comparison, writing a thriller is simple. All Lies Hidden is written in first person, meaning there is only one viewpoint and one ‘story’. Of course, greater simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean greater enjoyment for the author. But since the best part of writing any book is the ‘finishing it’ part, you reach that point much sooner when working on a thriller.
The most enjoyable aspect of writing fantasy is the worldbuilding. I mean, daydreaming while making up new worlds and magic systems? What’s not to like?
If there is a drawback, it is that worldbuilding takes time. I put considerable effort into making the places and cultures in my novels feel both realistic and interesting. So, my second novel, Dragon Hunters, features a city slowly sinking into the sea, whilst Red Tide takes places in a broken continent riddled with underwater portals leading to other worlds.
With thrillers, by contrast, the world has already been made up for you – however unsightly and messed up it might be.
The flipside to worldbuilding is research. With fantasy, an author makes up the story world, so he or she can never be wrong about it. Also, when I say they make up the world, they don’t need to make up the whole world – just enough to convince the reader that it feels real.
When I started writing All Lies Hidden, I was surprised – not to mention appalled – at how much research was involved. Police procedure, forensics, comas and minimally conscious states . . . all had to be studied, because if I made a mistake, my readers would surely spot it. While I was drafting the book, I spoke to (among other people) a police sergeant, a psychiatrist and an anaesthetist.
As someone accustomed to making everything up, the process was daunting. At times, it felt like I wasn’t doing much actual . . . writing. But on the plus side, I did get to go on a trip to the Lake District (where part of the book is set) and pass it off as work.
So, with all that said, do I prefer writing thrillers or fantasy novels?
The answer is undoubtedly ‘yes’.
Marc’s top tips for writing in a new genre
• Think twice. If you have an established readership in your existing genre, consider how many of your readers will read your work in a new genre.
• Immerse yourself in books from the new genre. Only then will you learn the rules and conventions of that field.
• Retain your focus. Be wary of introducing the conventions of your old genre into your new one. A novel that spans two genres may not sell well in either.
All Lies Hidden by Marc Turner is published by Endpapers Press
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