EXPERIENCES Writing On Brand


Welcome to our series in which our Deputy Editor, A. M. Dassu invites authors to tell us about their publishing-related experiences. This month author Sue Wallman tells us about writing on brand.


“Writing on brand” might sound as if all I’m doing is following a formula, and I’m stuck within its confines, but it’s not like that at all.


I write young adult thrillers and yes there are tropes/expectations, as there are for any genre. For starters, they tend to be plot-driven. The action keeps the story moving forward and the reader on the edge of their seat. The settings are strong, almost like another character, because they contribute to the feeling of unease and help the reader feel as if they are right there with the protagonist. There are twists, unpredictable swerves and red herrings, designed to make the book exciting. Often there will be a romance thread – this can add another layer to the story.


While a thriller might be defined by plot, the best of them have authentic characters with fully realised back stories, vulnerabilities and strengths. This is why I was drawn to thrillers in the first place. I’d been writing on and off my whole life but in 2007 I decided to seriously pursue publication. It took eight years to get a deal and one of the key things I learned during those years was that I needed more to happen to my characters. The fact that they were well-drawn wasn’t enough. That’s when I started what became my debut, Lying About Last Summer.


The next book, See How They Lie, was already in my head when I was given a two-book deal. I loved the idea of a girl growing up in a luxurious psychiatric/”wellness” facility because her father ran it, never questioning anything until the inciting incident – she picks up the phone in reception to someone she’s been told is dead. It turned out that thriller writing was my thing.


Authors start developing a brand with their first book, whether they like it or not. If it’s a success, the received wisdom is that readers want more of the same. They do want more of the same but it’s not an identical book they’re after, it’s the reading experience. Teenagers want to know roughly what they’re in for when they pick up one of my books.


My publisher, Scholastic has never told me what to write. Having an established brand is obviously easier for them to market and let’s never forget that publishing is a business, and I am keen to be paid. I love writing but I want it to be a career rather than a hobby. When my fifth book, I Know You Did It, was published in May, I did a masterclass with my editor Linas Alsenas, and I reflected on how much I’d learned about the thriller genre. There is something incredibly satisfying about focusing on one thing, getting better at it, and providing something of value.


To be able to enjoy what you’re writing, and for your writing to shine as much as it can, you have to be able to tap into your authentic authorial voice. For the moment I am concentrating on my teenage one. I have often thought about why I like writing for young adults and it’s a mix of remembering very clearly the emotions I felt when I was one and trying to understand the world of my own teenagers and the students I see in my day job as a school librarian.


Within a genre, there is space to try different things. If you are interested in subverting the tropes, it’s easier if you understand them in the first place. There are thousands of ways of writing a thriller – and that is where the challenge comes from. The book I’m currently working on is from the point of view of the villain.


When I’m asked if it’s harder to come up with ideas now I’m on my sixth YA thriller, I’d say yes from the point of view of coming up with new motivations, given I can’t go too far into gritty adult areas. An interesting thing which has happened with the last three books is that there’s been more collaboration with my editor from the start. Two brains can be better than one when it comes to plot, though it can also lead to more extremes which need to be reined in when it comes to writing! These discussions have been one of the unexpected pleasures of the writing process for me, when so much is done in isolation.


Developing a brand takes hard work and skill, and is too easily dismissed as somehow lesser because it is commercially driven. As a school librarian and author, I want the same thing: I want young people to read – to find books they can’t put down, which bring them escapism and comfort, or which speak to them and help them work out their feelings and who they want to be. If a student reads one of my books and gets pleasure from it, and it encourages them to keep reading, that makes me very proud.




Sue Wallman is the daughter of a psychiatrist and a nurse, and grew up with an interest in human behaviour. After a degree in English Literature & Publishing at Oxford Brooks University, she worked for a newspaper in Paris, and magazines in London. Now she’s a secondary school librarian by day and an author by night. She won The Woman’s Prize for Fiction First Chapter Award in 2013 and has gone on to win many other awards for her Young Adult thrillers, the first of which, Lying About Last Summer, was selected for the WHSmith/Zoella book club. Her fifth book, I Know You Did It, was published on 6th May.


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