K. L. Slater’s exploration into the ‘dark side’ of writing the psychological thriller.
Kim Slater is best known for her lively YA books Smart and Seven Letter Word, which not only deliver an enthralling read, but also deal with issues teenagers face today. But under the pen name of K. L. Slater, Kim has just written a tense psychological thriller and brilliantly titled Safe With Me.
I wanted to know how this shift in genre came about and how an author wears two writing hats.
As different perspectives make for interesting writing Kim’s other half Mac was also on hand to give his viewpoint of how Kim achieves this interesting feat of switching writing personalities.
Tell how Safe With Me came to be.
When I wrote before my MA, it was always adult crime. I sent this out to many agents, but was always rejected. I wrote Safe With Me (although I called it The Bridge) as part of my dissertation, which was about 10,000 to 12,000 words, for my BA in English and Creative Writing. The story was different, although quite a bit of it is still in the book. I just expanded it and improved the writing. But the voice of the main character Anna, is the same. Much of the first three chapters of Safe With Me is identical to my dissertation.
I sent that out between doing my BA and my MA to various agents, because I really liked Anna’s voice. Again everyone rejected me, but one of the agents, which is a big agency for crime and thriller writers, said they really liked it, but they’d just signed someone who’d written a similar plot. They told me if I wrote something similar they would like to have a look at it. I found this feedback really encouraging.
Time moved on and I became occupied with my MA, so I put everything on the back burner. Then I got my YA deal with Smart.
I unearthed Safe With Me and began to work on it again, but it was still difficult to get right. Because I’d just got the deal with Pan Macmillan, I needed to put my focus on my YA writing. So Safe With Me got put away again, until I had the space to look at it.
Why did you pull Safe With Me out of the drawer again?
I am an avid reader who’ll have more than one book on the go from more than one genre. But I do love reading crime. For me crime has to have a story and be gripping. What I’d notice was that digital publishers were coming out with great psychological thrillers, which is my favourite crime genre.
I found I had plenty to go at and really enjoyed them. That’s when I began to realise there’s a whole world online where the publishers are interacting with their readers. They know who their customers are and the readers speak to the authors on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a completely different world to the one I was used to with traditional publishing.
That’s when I felt my psychological thriller would do well and I wanted to get it out there. So I stripped it all the way back to about 70,000 words to clean it up and see what I had. Then I started again.
At that point I was only contracted to write one book every two years for Macmillan (Smart and Seven Letter Word). With my new two book deal with them, which I signed earlier this year, I’m now writing one book a year. When I was reworking Safe With Me I had the previous contract, which gave me plenty of time, particularly because I became a full-time writer last year. I write quickly and I’m never short of ideas. So at that point I worked on Safe With Me with my agent and was really pleased with it.
Why did you sign up with Bookouture?
Safe With Me was submitted to several publishers. Bookouture, was one of the publishers I particularly had my eye on, because I knew one writer who’d done really well with them as one of their authors.
I liked the way Bookouture worked with the readers and the authors, as well as the books they were producing on the crime and thriller side. Crime has just exploded on digital publishing.
I always wanted a traditional publishing deal at university. Digital publishing back then is not as it is now. But I did think if I didn’t get an agent or a traditional publishing deal I would have a go at self-publishing.
This time I had a traditional publishing deal for the YA market, I just didn’t have time to start on a learning curve of trying to format books, uploading them online and managing my own publicity. I just wanted to concentrate on writing.
Social media and the information on the internet has meant that writers are able to research the field they want to go into in depth. I did quite a bit of research on what was out there in terms of crime publishing, particularly psychological thrillers. I know exactly who my readers will be, which is 99.99% women. The reviews of the advanced copies of the books have also told me this, but then again I’ve just had a great review from a male reviewer who’s just read the book.
Mac: The other thing that reinforces that point is that digital publishers, like Bookouture, are very proactive in targeting their audience. Therefore the authors they take on write books in the particular areas they’ve focused on.
Kim: Signing with Bookouture was a fantastic experience, because I knew their track record and had read lots of their books. So I knew how they worked. I believe we’ve never seen anything like it in publishing in terms of crime. Bookouture know just what to do with crime novels like Safe With Me. Companies like Bookouture make it their business to build a rapport with their readers and they like their authors to interact with their readers. They also help their authors get together online, which means we become a community of writers (rather than in traditional publishing where authors work completely in isolation).
Wearing two writing hats clearly suits you. How do you switch from one to the other because each requires a very different mindset from you?
Kim: You know I’ve never thought about it, I just do it.
Mac: What I’ve observed is that you very easily and quickly immerse yourself into the world of whatever you’re writing and it’s almost exclusive to anything else. You come out of your office where you’ve been working and say “I feel like I’m in a different world”.
Kim: You’re right, it’s probably something to do with that. Once I go in my office, I’m so immersed that I often don’t want to come out into ordinary life. I’m only free of it once I get out of my home. When I’m here my writing keeps pulling me back once I’ve started.
I can work anywhere, as long as it’s quiet. I often come in here with my laptop and sit with Mac, so we can spend a bit more time together. I don’t like noise, but if I start wherever I am, I don’t want to stop. So I do become immersed in that world. One thing that’s always interested me is when people talk about writing two books at once, because that’s not something I could do (Although I always read two books at once, but I do try to read different genres). I think it’s possible to read more than one book at a time because the immersion in the story is not the same as my immersion in the story I’m writing.
Mac: It’s a natural thing for you to do. You move from one type of writing to another without really understanding why.
Kim: I think it’s also because the different types of writing mean I work with very different frames of mind. I want to have a feel about the book. With Safe With Me I wanted it to be creepy and steadily tension-building. I wanted that feel of relentless discomfort about it. With the YA books Smart, Seven Letter Word and 928 Miles From Home, I wanted more a feel of exploration of the world the character lives in and the themes. With 928 Miles I’m examining the concept of home and what home means to different people.
The two worlds of publishing I now work in make it easy to take one hat off and put another one on. My editors are aware that I am working with another publishing house. We all work together to make sure that I keep to the deadlines. For example, today I’ve got my edit back for my third YA novel, 928 Miles From Home (the distance from here to Poland), which is going to be published next May. That’s going to be on the back burner until I’ve finished writing my second psychological thriller for Bookouture. Then I’ll do the edit of 928 Miles. I feel as if I’ve got the best of both worlds and I love writing in both.
Why put so much pressure on yourself by writing two books.
I’ve always been someone who likes to be busy and would rather be like this than have one book every two years, because I want to write and I’ve got a lot of writing to get out of me.
Mac: Kim is incredibly dedicated to what she does. Very few people could apply themselves in this way. I certainly couldn’t. I think this comes from Kim’s love of what she’s doing. She never feels like she’s working. She still writes when she’s on holiday, usually in the morning. A couple of hours, about two thousand words each day. It’s her “go to” thing to do.
Kim: I just couldn’t go any length of time without writing. The need to do it is constantly in my head and I feel bad if I’m not doing it. I’ve got to do it.
Mac: Yes, when you get a period when you haven’t written, you get really edgy about it. You feel as if you’ve lost time or you’ve wasted time, when you could have been writing.
Kim: Lots of writers get like that. But occasionally it dawns on me that I do spend so many hours of my day in worlds that don’t exist.
Mac: That’s because you immerse yourself so deeply in those worlds. When you’re writing the outside world doesn’t exist.
Kim: I think the way I have to look at the amount of time I do spend immersed in writing has a payoff. I’ve always loved reading crime. I think it does a great service to readers. So although I’m spending hours of my day writing, someone somewhere is getting a couple of hours peace absorbed, reading my book.
You use two different names for the different genres.
I’m writing for different readers and therefore I’m gearing my writing to my readers. Part of that was because right from the beginning I wanted a different pen name for crime. Pan Macmillan has put a lot of effort into building the brand of Kim Slater, which is associated with YA writing. There would also be the problem if my young readers came across one of my crime novels and began to read one of them, because they are very different and not appropriate for my particular YA reader.
You wrote adult crime before the MA and then when working on Safe With Me after the MA. What did the MA do for you in terms of the way you approached your writing.
As I’d done Safe With Me for my first degree in English and Creative writing as part of my dissertation, I had about 12,000 words of it. But the voice of the characters was strong enough to make me want to go back to it after the MA. The MA meant I was able to pick this piece of writing up again and restructure it. All the tools I had learned and observed on the MA came into play. But I also think that the whole of my five years at university, including the first degree in English and Creative Writing, contributed to my approach. So when I picked the manuscript back up again a year ago, when I had a gap in my YA writing, the first thing I did was strip it straight back and put a whole new storyline into Safe With Me.
Safe With Me is an interesting title to use for a psychological thriller.
Safe with Me was in the text of the first draft of the book. Anna said to Liam “You’ll be fine. You’ll be safe with me.” That was a great idea because he’s really far from safe with her. I’ve actually taken it out since then because I felt it was a bit trite. Everyone, including Bookouture loved it.
Let’s talk about the different voices and therefore perspectives in Safe With Me. Anna’s first person, but everyone else is third person, which distances them from the reader. Although Joan, the neighbour who has known Anna since she was a child, is what could be described as a “close third person”. Why play with perspectives in this way?
Kim: I like playing with perspectives, because you can become immersed in Anna’s voice. One of the things that came out of editing was that I had to pepper Anna’s voice carefully through the story because it’s so strong and dark. This could make it too overpowering.
Lydia, my editor at Bookouture, suggested looking at another perspective. I’m always loathe to put another perspective in because my preference is for first person. It comes naturally to me. It always has done. When I’m writing third person I always find myself slipping into first person and have to correct myself back.
Mac: I think your immersion into the book, and the fact that you’re writing first person, is linked. You become that character when you’re writing. In your head you’re acting in that role and it’s coming out in your writing.
Kim: That’s the thing about first person, you get very close to the character. When Lydia told me to think about another perspective, I really thought about what I would do with Joan Peat, the neighbour. I adored writing Joan Peat in third person, but as you said I was able to feel very close to Joan and that came out in the writing.
Mac: Quite a few of the reviewers have picked up on that and said they really liked Joan.
Kim: Yes. She’s one step away from first person. But the thing with Safe With Me is that I’m throwing in red herrings here and there. So I don’t want to get you too close to all of the characters. I want there to be that space for you not to know everything about them, so there’s room to surprise readers at the end. Ultimately I enjoyed playing with the different points of view.
This is commercial crime. I want readers gripped and turning the pages, as I do with my YA. But the different perspectives come into their own when you’re writing commercial crime. I don’t want you to really know what everyone’s intentions are because that’s the way I build the tension.
This need to keep the reader constantly guessing is also heightened because of the use of the unreliable narrator.
This is my favourite way of writing. For me, the most effective unreliable narrators are written in first person. You need to see the inner workings of their mind. It works really well in Safe With Me, because Anna’s voice is so strange. I always get into the main character’s voice. My next adult crime novel also has rather a strange character. Because Anna’s got this strong opinions and is an unreliable narrator, it’s so obvious to the readers she’s on the wrong tracks, but at the same time you really can’t be sure if she is. Anna is not the only unreliable narrator in that story, which is why it shifts around so much.
The voice of the unreliable narrator has always been a source of fascination for me. You’re drawn in at first and believe what they say, then you begin to realise they have a skewed view. I like a strange voice that makes you uncomfortable. I do enjoy exploring this.
You are an explorer of words through your writing, although in very different ways, depending on who you’re writing for.
Yes I am exploring the story, as I hope the reader is too. I am fascinated by the process of writing. If I had to do a thesis it would be about exploring the unreliable narrator in even greater detail. I was really interested, when I was doing the MA, in digital publishing, because it had given short stories a new lease of life by making them more available. This availability and volume of content made it possible to explore the short story form much more easily, which is a form of storytelling I also love.