The Crime Readers' Association

The Path Not Taken – Susan Wilkins

3rd October 2014

I’ve been a writer for nearly thirty years, that’s what it says on my tax returns, so going back to square one, becoming the new kid again, the ingénue, is a bit of a challenge. But I’m a debut crime novelist waiting, trepidatiously you might say, for my first book, The Informant, to hit the shelves and zing through the electronic ether.

And whereas many crime writers have previous lives in useful occupations like the police, the law, crime reporting, forensics or psychology, my murky past is as a television scriptwriter.

I’ve written an original detective series for the BBC, South of the Border, I’ve done cops and docs, and I’ve done soaps. A mountain of scripts over the years. But I always hankered after writing that novel.

There are many examples of authors who manage to glide seamlessly between novels and screenwriting but I could never do it. And I’ve often wondered why.

The two Georges – George V. Higgins and George Pelecanos – are heroes of the crime genre for me and they both managed it. Higgins was a polymath: a lawyer, an Assistant DA, a newspaper columnist and the author of a slew of notable crime novels including The Friends of Eddie Coyle. He also wrote scripts for the seminal 80’s cop show, Hill Street Blues.

More recently George Pelecanos, who has maybe a longer list of crime novels to his name – The Double is his latest – was a writer and producer on The Wire.

However, the crossover for them, and for many others, was from already established novelist to screenwriter, and I think this makes a difference.

A novelist who knows their turf and has a confident voice, not to mention a reputation, is going to find the transition from author to team player far easier. Like Pelecanos they may well be headhunted for the role.

Starting out as a scriptwriter is a different matter. Continuing drama series are an excellent training ground for learning narrative structure and the disciplines of being a professional writer. What they’re not too good for is developing an original voice.

Producers like to deny it but television’s dirty little secret is that, for the most part, conformity is the name of the game.

I realise this may be a controversial view. But I’ve seen too many instances of scripts, not just my own, being completely eviscerated to accommodate the opinions, often contradictory, of a committee of producers, commissioners and random executives.

Some determined individuals break the mould, or simply refuse to work on long-running series. This can lead to many lean years waiting for the original ideas to sell. Then the siren call of the soaps and the financial security they bring can lure you off course.

For me, in the end, serious illness stopped my television career in its tracks. As I recovered I finally found the mental space and the time to write my first novel.

With the benefit of twenty twenty hindsight I wish I’d taken the other route and tried my luck at novel writing years ago. But the money was good and the mortgage was large and I still get a fizz of excitement when the lights go down, the screen flickers and I see my characters come to life.


Read more about Susan on her CRA author profile 

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