Murder or Womanslaughter: Are publishers unintentionally killing creativity in thrillers?

Credit: Clare Park

Bridget Lawless is a screenwriter, novelist and educator. She has written a number of educational books about social issues, including drugs and violence. Currently she’s re-evaluating her own fictional writing and first novel in the light of launching the Staunch Book Prize, which is proving an interesting creative challenge.

When you explore what individual publishers are looking for – outlined on their company websites or the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, they often state thrillers and crime amongst their interests, but very rarely with any more detail than that. For writers, it’s a bit of a guessing game who wants what, so they scroll down that publisher’s titles and may still be none the wiser. I’ve never seen (very happy to be corrected here) a publisher saying that he or she wants thrillers – but not ones which feature violence against women. Does that mean it’s not a factor? It’s irrelevant? Or that they actively embrace violence against women? Who’s to know?

Since I first started talking about launching a new book prize – landing myself with a bit of a mouthful to explain its criteria – I’ve never got beyond ‘it’s for a thriller in which no woman…’ before the listener’s eyes widen, their smile broadens, the nods of understanding come, as I continue ‘…gets beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Not one person has failed to get it. No-one’s told me it’s a terrible idea, or not needed, or asked why? On the contrary – I’ve had – ‘Brilliant! Finally! Oh, that’s fantastic! About time!’ and so on, entirely in that vein. People, especially women of course, tell me they are absolutely fed up with books, films and TV dramas where women get beaten up, raped and murdered.

I wonder if it’s been a conscious decision in the industry to publish and promote thrillers that leave a trail of dead or devastated females in their pages? Are you holding focus groups and strategy meetings about it? Certainly, we’ve all been very aware of the endless books with ‘Girl’ in the title – an obvious and somewhat cynical publishing steer. No doubt what writers see on the shelves dictates what they feel is wanted – or will be noticed on submission – driving them, however subconsciously, away from originality. Publishers and producers for screen are equally guilty of their own kind of ‘me too’ campaigns – as soon as any type of book or drama takes off, there’s a scramble to copy it. Thrillers are in a major league of their own here. But what about readers, and audiences? Yes, they want something that delivers as satisfyingly as the last one. But they also want something different and more surprising – which is why poor copies that are rushed out are so often duds.

So – are publishers missing a trick here? What should you be doing to buck your own trends? Is it enough just to state you’re looking for ‘original writing’ without demonstrating that’s what you’re choosing to take to print? Is it time to notice the climate changing and get ready for it? Maybe it doesn’t feel necessary – gory thrillers sell very well after all, and everyone seems to be writing them, female as well as male. Is this just looking for a problem where none exists? Time will tell. But there’s huge conversation going on out there, the #MeToo, the deep disgust, the sick-of-itness? Is the climate not already right to zone in on crime and thrillers in which women and girls don’t have to be victims? Maybe it’s time to seek those writers out and celebrate their books loudly, saying to the readers who want them, ‘they’re on this stack, over here!’ And to producers looking for adaptable material, ‘We’ve got a whole pile of this stuff. All utterly original. Take your pick.’

Staunch Book Prize: the details

• The prize is open to thrillers in which no woman gets beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.
• Entries are open between 22nd February and 15th July 2018. The prize of £2000 will be awarded on 25th November 2018.
• Entries are open to authors/books that have been traditionally or self-published (print or e-book) within 18 months of the closing date, or are not yet published.
• International entries are welcome as long as they are in English.
• Multiple submissions are fine.
• The criteria are very strict!
• Bridget really hopes to get entries from black and Asian thriller writers who are very under-represented in this genre.
• Entries will be read blind.
• Bridget is funding the prize herself.

For more information, visit

[author photo credit: Clare Park]

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