Writers’ Advice: Go Niche Or Go Home
‘Nobody likes a good all-rounder.’
My English teacher once told that. It’s advice I’ve taken to heart.
Over the years, my tastes have become ever more abstruse. Maybe yours have too. Perhaps I’m not the only author who has Gilbert & Sullivan, Steve Reichs, hi-BPM hard house and Count Arthur Strong on his playlist, but in Waterstones the man at the till looked at the two books I was buying, ‘Louder and Funnier’ by PG Wodehouse and ‘Chernobyl’ and said, ‘Well, you certainly have wide-ranging tastes.’ No bad thing – until you come to write, that is.
As a writer you have to be aware of what others enjoy. If several millions people like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ then you must at least know about it. There’s a long list of things I don’t particularly enjoy; opera, rap, folk, gangster movies, the Bronte sisters, cars, rom-coms, sport, medieval art and the Spanish guitar, but admitting passions makes you sound madder. If I say I love airports, British fifties movies, menswear, minimalism and all European food except French I start to look far odder, and run the risk of putting people off.
But specialising is a good thing. If you want to read about the NHS, wouldn’t you choose to read a report by a doctor? When I want to read a straightforward thriller I’ll choose one of those crime novels with a blocky white sans-serif face and a picture of a rocky path and a gnarled tree on it. If I want strange I go to writers like Magnus Mills, Charles Stross, Nick Harkaway and Ned Beauman, all creative people who have chosen a niche and work it in fresh new ways.
That’s how readers decide what they want and why crossover genres rarely sell. If you want a book about a girl on a train it had better be called ‘Girl on a Train’. Hawkins’ novel is the ultimate ‘does what it says on the tin’ book. But if you want a thriller that upends the format go to ‘Beat the Reaper’ by Josh Bazell, in which a doctor fashions a weapon from his own leg (although avoid the sequel that’s bad enough to suggest he had a ‘Difficult Second Novel’ moment).
If you want a film in which a Syrian refugee learns to fly, see ‘Jupiter’s Moon’. If you want one in which the serial killer is caught at the start but still succeeds in carrying out his murderous plot, watch the movie ‘Chaser’.
If you go to a bookshop and ask to see a novel in which the protagonist is a ceramic bowl, a dog or a monkey, you can find them all. But if you go looking for that author who does all sorts of stuff in all kinds of ways, you will never find her/him.
I know, for I am one of those authors. The Bryant & May novels are successful because both you and I know what’s expected of us. Everything else I do is a leap into the unknown, every single time.