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June 30, 2024 12:00
C.L. Taylor bestselling author of The Accident, The Lie, The Missing, The Escape, The Fear, Sleep, Strangers, Her Last Holiday, The Guilty Couple and her newest book, Every Move You Make.
guest authors
crime and suspense

C.L. Taylor on Standing Out in a Crowded Genre

June 9, 2024
C.L. Taylor
June 9, 2024

Standing out in a busy publishing landscape is important, and no genre is quite as busy and crowded as the psychological thriller genre. The pressure for writers to come up with twist after twist, hook after incredible hook, reveal after astonishing reveal, can be grueling. So how does an author of ten gripping standalone psychological thrillers do it?

C.L. Taylor is the eight times Sunday Times bestselling author of The Accident, The Lie, The Missing, The Escape, The Fear, Sleep, Strangers, Her Last Holiday, The Guilty Couple and her newest book, Every Move You Make. Her books have sold over two million copies in the U.K. alone, and hit the number one spots on Amazon Kindle, Audible, Kobo, iBooks and Google Play. They have been translated into over 30 languages, been selected twice for the Richard and Judy Book Club (Sleep and The Guilty Couple) and optioned for television.

In this article, C.L. Taylor shares her journey through the psychological thriller genre, and identifies the authors who stand out in a crowded market. She also reveals her take on the three vital ingredients for a bestseller—a must-read if you’re writing crime and suspense or psychological thrillers. Thank you to Cally for sharing her wisdom and expertise!

The psychological thriller renaissance

When my first crime novel, The Accident, was published in 2014, I worried it would flop because the psychological thriller market was saturated. Looking back now, the temptation to laugh and point at my 40-year-old self is strong because I had no idea how enormous and over-stuffed the psychological thriller market would become.

But my journey into psychological thrillers started a few years before that. Four things happened in 2011:

  • Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes was published in May
  • Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson was published in June
  • I gave birth to my son in October
  • My second romantic comedy, Home for Christmas, was published in November

I spent a lot of time pushing my son’s pram around, in a frantic effort to get him to sleep. I also spent hours feeding him each night. Somehow, I also managed to read. I listened to the Before I Go to Sleep audiobook as I pushed his pram, and I read Into the Darkest Corner while he napped in the daytime (it was the only time he slept).

I devoured both books. I’d never been a particular fan of crime, thinking it was all hard-boiled detectives and private investigators, but these books put a different spin on the genre. Not only did Watson and Haynes’s books contain female characters, but they were also relatable. I could imagine what I might do if I was in the same situation.

From romcoms to thrillers: changing genres

In 2012 my world fell apart. My romcom editor said she didn’t want to acquire any more romantic comedies. I thought my publishing career was over, but there was a tiny flicker of hope. In 2011 I’d won the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Elizabeth Goudge Prize for the best first chapter on the theme of ‘keeping a secret.’ In my extract a woman sits at her daughter’s hospital bedside, the teenager’s diary in her hands, wondering what ‘keeping this secret is killing me’ means and why it made her daughter step in front of a bus. It felt like the start of a psychological thriller and, with nothing to lose, I continued writing it while I was on maternity leave and delivered it to my agent.

When she went on submission with it in 2013, I felt like I hadn’t written it fast enough. Other psychological thrillers were being published and The Accident received rejection after rejection until, finally, Avon (an imprint of HarperCollins) said yes. My advance was small and my expectations for the book’s success were even lower. Miraculously—largely thanks to some canny ebook pricing (it was 69p when most ebooks were still full price)—it shot to the top of the Kindle charts and sold over 40,000 paperbacks.

For my next book, The Lie, in 2015, I decided to do something different. I’d had an idea for a book about toxic friendships and a group of friends who go on holiday to Nepal and find themselves in a cult. My editor was worried that Nepal wasn’t relatable enough for most readers, but I couldn’t imagine it set anywhere else and she agreed to keep it in. That courage was rewarded when the book went on to sell over 400,000 ebooks and 77,000 paperbacks. In a market that had become crowded with stories about domestic abuse, the book felt new and different. It was also relatable. We’ve all had friends who have let us down or gossiped about us, but few of us have had a friend like the main character in The Lie; a friend who actively wanted her dead.

Books that revolutionize the genre

In the same year, Paula Hawkins put a new spin on the amnesia trope that had also become huge, thanks to S.J. Watson. In The Girl on the Train Hawkins’s main character is unreliable because of her alcoholism. Not relatable to most readers, maybe, but the hook certainly was. Who hasn’t stared out of a train window, wondering about the people in the homes that they pass?

There was another huge hit in 2015: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. Clare’s take on the unreliable narrator was different from anything that had come before, and not just because of the stonker of the midpoint twist. What Clare did so perfectly in that book was play with the reader’s emotions. The storyline carries a heavy punch and, even without the ‘I never saw that coming’ twist, you can’t read that book without being moved.

And let’s not forget Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley whose hugely popular novels—on both sides of the Atlantic—have given psych thrillers an Agatha Christie spin. There’s also Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough which, interestingly, didn’t start a psych thriller/supernatural crossover sub-trend but was so fresh and innovative (along with the frankly brilliant ‘WTF That Ending!’ marketing campaign) that it was a huge hit in both the U.K. and U.S.

The current trend in psych thrillers is the ‘destination’ or ‘exotic setting’ thriller. Lucy Clarke has successfully written them for years but, after the success of The White Lotus, publishers clamored for them, and so a new sub-genre trend was born.

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Staying ahead of genre trends

Over the course of ten years writing psychological thrillers, and having written eleven books, I’ve always tried to stay one step ahead. Sometimes I’ve succeeded (The Lie), but with other books, I’ve either been one step behind or I’ve been part of a group of authors all writing the same sort of thing. For example, The Missing, which features dissociative amnesia and is my biggest-selling paperback, was one of many books about psychiatric issues in 2016. Dissociative amnesia also featured in the TV drama Marcella and wrecked any chances I may have had of getting a TV deal.

Sleep, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club selection in 2019, was inspired by the And Then There Were None Agatha Christie adaptation on the BBC. Before my book was published, Shari Lapena and Lucy Foley (who I think also watched the adaptation) had their books published first. With so many channels and streaming services available, it hadn’t struck me that two other authors would have the same idea, but the same thing happened in 2022.

When I came to write The Guilty Couple, my ninth psychological thriller (and second Richard and Judy pick), I had a feeling that it was time to flip things on their head. Instead of my protagonist being a victim, I wanted the worst to already have happened. I wanted her to actively seek out revenge. Funnily enough, in 2022 Dorothy Koomson and T.M. Logan also wrote books with similar ‘freed from prison, seeking revenge’ themes.

There are times when I think that the psychological thriller market is exhausted, that it’s impossible to come up with a different spin on the genre; then someone like Gillian McAllister comes along and gives it a time travel spin with Wrong Place Wrong Time.  

The ingredients for a bestseller

It’s impossible to predict what the next psychological thriller trend might be. (I have my suspicions, but I’m keeping them close to my chest for now...) Very few authors break out internationally the way S.J. Watson, Lucy Foley, Lisa Jewell and Ruth Ware have done.

What you, as a writer, do have control over, however, is your predictability as a dependable brand. By that, I mean you need to deliver the best books you can write, satisfying read after satisfying read.

To my mind, a psychological thriller bestseller has three vital ingredients:

  • The theme is universal
  • The hook is captivating and original
  • The book makes the reader feel something—and feel it strongly

Oh, luck and timing play a huge part too. But no-one wants to be a one-hit wonder; you want to be a brand author.

When I’ve asked my Facebook readers why they read my books they say things like, ‘I can’t put them down,’ ‘they’re so twisty,’ ‘they’re all so different.’ Those phrases could be applied to multiple authors so all I can assume is there’s an indefinable ‘something’ that makes a C.L. Taylor book a C.L. Taylor book. Maybe it’s my voice, the way I structure my books, the characters, the short chapters, the kinds of twists that I write... Who knows? Certainly not me.

But with every book I write, I tell myself this one will be the one that everyone talks about. This one is going to be the best thing I’ve ever written. And maybe that helps.

For more tips on writing and editing your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for courses, coaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school.

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C.L. Taylor
C.L. Taylor

C.L. Taylor is the eight times Sunday Times bestselling author of The Accident, The Lie, The Missing, The Escape, The Fear, Sleep, Strangers, Her Last Holiday, The Guilty Couple and her newest book, Every Move You Make. Her books have sold over two million copies in the UK alone, and hit the number one spots on Amazon Kindle, Audible, Kobo, iBooks and Google Play. They have been translated into over 30 languages, been selected twice for the Richard and Judy Book Club (Sleep and The Guilty Couple) and optioned for television.

Members of The Novelry team