Transitioning from Literary to Genre Fiction

From Writer Unboxed:

How does an author of “literary crime” fiction make the transition to a straight-up crime thriller? I put that question and more to today’s guest, Damyanti Biswas.

Damyanti’s Indian debut literary crime novel You Beneath Your Skin was an Amazon bestseller, and it was optioned for the screen by Endemol Shine. Her second novel, The Blue Bar, was published in January 2023 via Thomas & Mercer. Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, described it as an “exceptional crime thriller,” adding:

“Meticulous local color matches sensitive characterizations, including of brave Mumbai police who try to overcome the deadly hazards of the corrupt system they have to work in. This searing portrait of marginalized people struggling for survival is unforgettable.”

Damyanti’s work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Ambit, Pembroke Review, and Griffith Review among many others in the US, UK, and Australia. She also serves as an editor for The Forge literary magazine.

. . . .

Your first novel, You Beneath Your Skin, was a beautiful novel that had a crime-murder element but focused primarily on the sociological complexity of present-day India and the psychological nuances of its characters. What prompted you to decide to write a straight-up crime-thriller? Not only that, it’s the first in a series — how challenging or exciting of a change is that?

I stumbled into writing You Beneath Your Skin. In my consciousness it began as a literary novel, because I began my writing life as a literary short story writer.

By the time feedback made me realize that I was in fact writing a crime novel complete with dead bodies and investigators, it was too late to make it a straight-up genre offering. My publishers called it a thriller, but in reality You Beneath Your Skin is more of a book club fiction about the periphery of crime: a whydunit rather than a whodunit.

With The Blue Bar, I wanted to challenge myself into writing a genre crime thriller—the ability to create pace and suspense intrigued me. Both my agent and my editor have taught me a lot about these aspects. I’ve also ended up learning much more about plot, and about the beats of Western storytelling in the 3-act and 5-act structures. This is very different from storytelling in Asia, which tends to be low on conflict, and is focused on introduction, development, twist/climax, and conclusion—the introduction and development tends to be much longer than in a typical Western novel.

When approaching The Blue Bar, I wanted to write a whodunit without sacrificing the whydunit aspects. To me, characters are the bedrock of any story, and their desire the jet fuel that propels it. In crime thrillers, the desires of the protagonist and antagonist come into violent conflict but in some stories I’ve read, the twists feel forced, the setting generic, the characters forgettable. The Blue Bar was my attempt at writing the kind of procedural or whodunit I like to read: with nuanced, memorable characters, a specific, atmospheric setting, and a plot that is surprising yet inevitable. Readers might judge if I’ve succeeded, but that was the goal.

I’d written The Blue Bar as a standalone, with a very different, and far darker ending, but my publisher bought the manuscript in a 2-book deal, and they wanted my cast of characters to continue in a second book.

To me, this was a challenge: to retain my artistic vision, yet write a contracted, commercial story. Without spoiling The Blue Bar, I can only say that the ending has brought many constraints within which to write the sequel, The Blue Monsoon. I’ve treated those constraints as a provocation: how do I turn the limitations of a character or setting into a strength? Whether I’ve succeeded only time may tell.

To write a fresh story with the same cast of characters in the previous setting, yet changed circumstances forces you to think about your characters, setting and plot from a similar yet different perspective. You must write a new story, but keep track of the continued character backstories, while not letting these backstories weigh down pace. You must explore new corners of the same setting. And you must try and have a character arc over the series as well as the novel. With the challenges I set myself with the ending of The Blue Bar, none of this was easy. I have a new respect for authors who write long-term crime series.

What were the hardest lessons you encountered in trying your hand at genre writing? You’ve retained your excellent command of your characters’ psychological subtleties and the cultural richness of your Mumbai setting, as well as your command of evocative detail—two of your blurbs used the phrase “assault your senses”—but you switched the structural focus more centrally on the detective in search of justice. What else was a challenge for you?

. . . .

Crime writing caters to certain reader expectations that I struggle with: the pace must be relentless, the story easy to read, and the protagonist always triumphant. I’ll explain the challenge and the lesson, in each case.

When it comes to pace, I wrestle with what gets shown vs what is told and when. I tend to summarize important bits of action and show characters in greater detail than needed. I’ve had to learn ways to prioritize the investigation/action, but not at the expense of characters. Pace also suffers when your red herrings are clumsy, or if you explain backstory. Cutting backstory and using it in brushstrokes has been effective. All red herrings must make sense in terms of motive, means and opportunity, and this is a challenge for a literary writer used to depending on language rather than plot. I’ve had to verify during edits that each suspect does indeed have a motive, the means, and an opportunity.

The second challenge is cultural: I write stories set in India for a Western audience. Translating not just terms, but embedded cultural beliefs is hard to do with finesse, especially without sacrificing pace. While the rest of the world is used to researching Western terms, Western audiences are new to looking up unfamiliar non-Western ones. Keeping the reader oriented, without disrespectful spoon-feeding, is a delicate balance, especially in a novel with multiple points of view and timelines, as well as a complex plot. I’ve had to use language with as much precision as possible in order to be able to respect both the character/story and the reader.

The third hurdle, about making the protagonist triumphant, is not easy for me personally because I come from a background of literary, realistic writing. Corruption is often rampant in an Indian setting, as in many others, and it’s hard to create an ending that is earned, believable, and in line with genre expectations. The lesson here has been to make only the narrative promises on which the story can realistically deliver. I’ve tried to make the context come alive so that the ending satisfies on the level of story as well as on-the-ground realities.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed