Finding my voice

Two years ago I quit journalism to pursue an old dream and find a new voice as a novelist. I had just published my first novel called Happy Hour, for which my Dutch publisher was and is full of praise. I love a thread of suspense in a book, so I had hesitantly called it a ‘suspense novel’, but for the publisher it was clear: this was a thriller. So that’s what it says on the cover.

Whenever I explained to someone what the book was about, however, I’d find myself saying it wasn’t really a thriller. Yes, there was a criminal aspect to it, but really, it was about the darker sides of human nature. I was much more interested in the psychology of the people involved than in car chases or the like. After a while it struck me: obviously Happy Hour was a psychological thriller. That, therefore had to be my genre.

Happy to have found my voice, I set out to finish the next book, set in Turkey, unlike Happy Hour, which was set in Holland. This time I was on much more familiar ground, having lived in Turkey, not Holland, for the last two decades. The topic too was more up my street. The main character is a woman journalist, not like the protagonist of Happy Hour, a bored bureaucrat whose downward spiral starts when he stumbles into having sex with an underage girl.

And yet, I struggled.

I struggled, but I finished. ‘Luctor et emergo,’ goes our national motto (I struggle and emerge). I started sending the manuscript around. I was lucky to be introduced to a number of fine agents by fellow writers. Every single one of them wrote me back a personal letter, as did some agents to whom I sent it to unsolicited. Thank you to them all! But alas, no bidding war emerged.

Just a few reactions:
“I read it with great interest. Besides being an interesting storyline, I’ve personally always wanted to go to Turkey. […] Your story was very successful in immersing me in this time and place. It was visceral and vivid. However…”
“Pilgrims offers a tense story and I like Kim. That said, I’m currently taking on a very limited number…”
“There are lots of things about it that we liked – the setting, the issues, the intertwined stories, etc – but in the end…”

It hurts to get these rejections, true, and it is discouraging. A friend who is a famous American novelist put me out of my misery. Drop it, he said, and get writing your next book. Reluctantly I put it behind me, and started on a fresh page.

Meanwhile, however, one agent was willing to engage in a little more discussion of what she didn’t like about ‘Pilgrims’. Several of the agents had referred to the main character as being the problem, and this agent did too. More specifically she said that for her the protagonist didn’t fit in the thriller genre, but much more in ‘women’s fiction’.

I felt little sparks of recognition fly around my head. She’d hit the nail on the head! I’m not a thriller writer. I want to write about normal people who may get into trouble as they plod through life, but whom the reader should feel could be a friend, or a neighbour. As was the case with Happy Hour.

As soon as I dropped the straitjacket of the thriller template, suddenly the new book that I’m working on started to flow. Of course there will be suspense, and lots of it too. But if women’s fiction means writing about real life, that’s what I’ll stick to. And when my new book comes out, this time I’ll make sure it’s called a ‘suspense novel.’

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