Four Crime Genres, Four Techniques to get you that Contract!
Psychological suspense, thrillers, horror, and mystery are popular subjects for a lot of genre writers. Yet all writers are already intimately familiar with these topics; so much of a writer’s life is an everyday encounter with most if not all of them. Supernatural self-belief, faith in the unknown, and a driving instinct for resurrection are all characteristics of the successful writer in the face of the ongoing psychological torture that is known as getting published.
Writers spend their life being mystified by the process of getting published. Every writer goes online for advice about how to do it and finds out that the first step (after writing the masterpiece, of course) is how to find an agent. But what are these agents? Mysterious spirits of the material world who exist in a realm (New York City or London, sometimes Los Angeles or Berlin) unreachable by most writers except through the medium of email.
The query email must be prepared with the utmost religious devotion, like pilgrims making preparations to walk to Lourdes on their knees. The agent must be lured into reading your sample chapters, yet even a single misplaced punctuation mark can spell disaster for the seeker. The letter must be professional but approachable, confident but not arrogant, friendly but not over-familiar. Like any spirit, the agent can vanish at any point in the process, even after having requested a full manuscript, leaving the writer in agony as she regards the silent inbox day after day, wondering what she did wrong.
The agent has somehow decided that you are a mortal worthy of some attention, at least until her ADD kicks in and she gets bored of your submission. She promises to read your work and get back to you, but warns you that she has a lot to do and you may not hear from her for a few months. You are now entering the suspense part of your training as a writer, where every day is an exercise in patience. Every day that the agent does not get back to you ratchets up the tension.
You are convinced that today is the day you’ll hear back. Even if it’s a rejection, you just need an answer! Your nerves get stretched tighter than violin strings. You’ve been warned not to write to the agent to ask about the progress of your submission. But like a Hitchcock movie, the temptation to send just…one…email grows stronger and stronger in your brain. Just… one… email… what harm can it do?
Thanks to the Digital Age, now the writer must also contend with Submittable, the most popular online submission system (this process best fits into the subgenre of steampunk). The idea of facing a machine rather than an agent might be more palatable to some, but the system is equally prone to mystery. Submissions can stay “unread” for months, if not years, or get stuck on the dreaded “In Progress” status, while queries disappear into an electronic black hole, never to be answered by another human being ever.
Soon you are screaming at strangers in the street and jumping in the air every time your phone rings with a notification. Your hair turns white as a result, like the woman who was a young girl in the morning and looks in the mirror to see herself a thousand-year-old crone when she goes to bed at night.
You have received an email from the agent you queried. No matter how many offerings you made to the gods, how much incense you burned, how many talismans you slept with under your pillow at night, it’s bad news. You have been rejected by the agent. Worse than that, it is a short, sharp rejection: a simple form letter thanking you for your submission but that it “didn’t fit my list.”
The world tilts. Sunshine turns into night, a crack of thunder rumbles in the distance, and you sink to the floor feeling as if death has knocked on your door. You will never be published, ever. Life is over as you know it. You might as well walk into the basement alone at 3 a.m. and wait for the bogeyman to finish you off.
But before you do that, you have to write another query letter to another agent. Repeating the process all over again is terrifying, but you are compelled to do it. Your finger hovers over the “Submit” button, and suddenly it’s not your finger, but the bony claws of the skeleton you have become.
Joy! An agent has offered you representation! You are reborn, redeemed, washed clean of all the stain of rejection and failure. Time to break out the champagne, call all your friends, update your Facebook status. You’re going to be a published author!
Not so fast. Just because you’re on an agent’s list doesn’t mean that you’re going to be published automatically. Now starts the process of your agent shopping the manuscript (once you’ve drained all your lifeblood on editing it with him) to various publishers. Think of it as the same process you’ve just gone through obtaining an agent, multiplied by a thousand. The world will turn into a vast shadowy network of publishers who are out to get you, who have something against you, who don’t want to see you succeed and your book get on bookshelves and onto bestseller lists.
It’s you and your agent, taking on the network like a crime-fighting duo, struggling to make your brilliant voice heard by the world. The only thing standing in your way are those greedy publishers, who care little for your genius and whose bottom line is the dollars you can make for them. But you’re an artist, a creative, sensitive soul not wired for this materialistic planet. Your agent is the Robin to your Batman, the Watson to your Holmes, the Bess to your Porgy. Will you be able to obtain that elusive publishing? Will your manuscript go to auction? Will you break into the world of literary success?
To find out, they’ll just have to buy the book.
Bina Shah is a Karachi-based author of five novels and two collections of short stories. Her previous novel, A Season for Martyrs, was published in the US, France, and India to critical acclaim, while her forthcoming feminist dystopian novel, Before She Sleeps, will be published by Delphinium Books in August 2018. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is an honorary fellow in writing at the University of Iowa. You can find her on Twitter @binashah and on her blog, thefeministani.com.