Ben Kay on Instinct

Ben Kay is a seriously talented chap. Not content with being an award-winning advertising creative and proprietor of a highly respected industry blog , he decided to turn his skills and his spare time to creating a high-octane blockbuster novel. The result, Instinct, an apocalyptic sci-fi thriller about deadly mutant wasps, is currently riding high in the bestseller charts. Here Ben gives us the inside story on what it’s like for a writer to enter the murky world of bestselling paperback fiction…

The first time I met my editor I asked him if there was anything he wanted to change about my manuscript.

‘Well,’ he began, ‘it’ll need to be a bit longer. Maybe 20,000 words.’

‘Really?’ I replied. ‘But everything I’ve read about writing books tells you how important it is to trim them to their essentials, to remove any excess words and make the prose as economical as possible.’

He smiled to himself then leaned in.

‘That’s for literary fiction.’

I swallowed my pride/dignity/gin and tonic and realised once and for all that I had written a book that would not be troubling the jurors of the Booker. Until that point I had thought that books were books, and although my writing was closer to that of Michael Crichton than Michael Frayn, I was unaware that a whole new set of rules applied to what I was doing.

The main difference is that you have to be simultaneously proud and ashamed of what you have done. Yes, you have managed to point 100,000 words in the same direction, structuring a story and developing characters that give your readers a voracious appetite for turning the page. But on the other hand you have almost certainly chosen popularity over quality, the blockbuster over the plucky indie, the dreams of avarice over starving in a garret.

For many in the world of publishing there is no greater crime. It is as if you have stood up in the middle of a dinner party and chosen to defend Michael Bay over Ingmar Bergman. You will not be reviewed in the Spectator, LRB or Observer (not until you have made a name for yourself at least). You will not be profiled in The Culture section of The Sunday Times (ditto) and you will not be sold in Waterstones (ditto).

Instead you must take your delight in a four-star review in the News of the World, shelf space in Tesco, and enough daily sales to choke a hippo.

And I am indeed delighted at such things. Having a novel published is a thrill that ranks alongside the best of my life. With the odds against such an occurrence being as long as they are, it’s like placing a bet at 500-1 and spending five years gently coaxing it home, knowing that at any moment it could pull up lame. For months it will be the first thing your friends ask about; you get to write acknowledgements that express gratitude to the manger of Arsenal then see them printed in a book with that little penguin on the front, and the strange high you get from seeing it on the shelves of WH Smith will be all the sweeter for being impossible to come by any other way.

I never made a deliberate decision to write something ‘popular’ over something literary. I just wrote something I wanted to read. Aside from the sequel (already written in a fit of misguided optimism), the other plots I wish to explore are not in the techno thriller genre, but then my tastes are eclectic and I’d be a bit of a hypocrite to look down my nose at that which gives me pleasure.

For now I’ll just enjoy the positive feedback and see if my next book qualifies as ‘literary’. Then I’ll just be embarrassed about the poor sales, compensating myself with the relief that I’ll never again have to describe my plot by using the words ‘giant’ and ‘wasp’

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17 thoughts on “Ben Kay on Instinct

    January 19, 2011 at 09:23

    Fascinating stuff Ben, i’ve always found it really interesting that thriller writing seems to have a very particular ‘code’ that you almost have to adhere to. Would be interested to know if you do any courses on that style of writing before starting out on the book? Or did it come to you fairly naturally?

  2. Gaw
    January 19, 2011 at 09:44

    I followed the same path of writing a novel I’d enjoy reading myself. However, your experience, Ben, confirms I’ve ended up with something that doesn’t know whether it’s literary fiction (probably too racy) or thriller (certainly too short). This is a serious commercial problem.

  3. Brit
    January 19, 2011 at 09:45

    Great stuff. You should definitely go for the full garret-starver next – perhaps an impenetrable psychological study of the breakdown of Anglo-Parisian intellectual Dr Dylan Trigg. It’s about time that the Burroughs-style cut-up technique had a revivial, come to think of it. If you’re worried about the Ben Kay rep you could do it under a nom de plume, like, say, K. Benn.

    Unless you get a movie deal, in which case sod that, Easy Street here we come!

    January 19, 2011 at 10:05

    I didn’t do any courses, although if I were able to give up my day job for long enough I’d love to do a proper creative writing course. Just because I’ve written a novel doesn’t mean I don’t have tons more to learn (look how many negatives I’ve polluted that sentence with. And that one ended with a proposition).

    And I still don’t know what the thriller rules are. I suggest just reading a lot of thrillers and hoping you get close enough.

    And thanks for printing my witterings.

    January 19, 2011 at 10:06

    Never troubled Kathy Cookson much, sitting in the conservatory looking out over the Tyne valley sipping her Guinness and chewing on a ham and pease pudding stottie, calculator on the desk, next to the pile of bank statements, poodle-like husband cleaning the windows. The thought never crossed her mind, no Turgenev am I
    A novel should be written based around the Nicholson / Turner Prizzi’s Honour scene on the bed, but with Gill and Wark as the central characters, that would be a best seller.

    January 19, 2011 at 10:41

    bloody hell malty that’s made some unusual images in my head. Whatever Gill and Wark get up to can’t be as bad as the things some of the characters in Gill’s novel ‘Sap Rising’ get up to, like becoming intimately aquainted with the family pet…

  7. Brit
    January 19, 2011 at 10:44

    Am I right in thinking that due to severe dyslexia AA Gill dictates all of his work? Which would mean that some poor typist had to listen to those scenes from Sap Rising straight from the, ah, horse’s mouth? Yikes…

      January 19, 2011 at 11:47

      I think so Brit, which, as you say, does make you wonder whether he felt the remotest inkling of shame as he added the final flourishes to the graphic description of Rover servicing the housemaid. Incidentally ‘Sap Rising’ is one of the worst books I have ever read.

  8. Brit
    January 19, 2011 at 11:06

    PS. I see our Google Power has already worked its magic.

    Just need to take down Facebook, Amazon, Youtube and Penguin books now. No sweat.

      January 19, 2011 at 14:32

      good god that is truly worrying! Either I was drastically wrong in my appraisal of said tome, or there are just a lot of idiots out there.

    January 19, 2011 at 14:18

    Seduce me ancient footwear, Adrians written a buch?. As for this idea, based around a fifth rate television critic and toy boy to a bloated motoring hack called Baby Grumplin’ who finds himself on the same hit as a clapped out yappy Scots journalist who, whilst interviewing Peter Lilley, became positively orgasmic and triumphant and gloating, over the result of the 1997 election, her beady little in-turning eyes glistening in the television lights. Who was then given a place, not by a well known labour politician, on the committee who didn’t pick the design for a government building not in Edinburgh and then wasn’t paid 0ne hundred thousand pounds of taxpayers money by a certain country not north of the Cheviots to make a documentary about what went wrong with the choosing of the design for said structure and who just happened to give freebie holidays to her mate, not a First Minister and who now, squawking at the top of her squeak fronts a well known TV programme when she should in fact be investigated by plod…
    Her remuneration, now funded by the License payer via a well known broadcasting company, who’s golden rule is that it’s staff be at all times impartial.

    Make a good book that, or an even better court case.

    Oh, and don’t mention this to Muriel Gray.

    • Brit
      January 19, 2011 at 14:35

      Hmmm…. some light begins to be shed on the origins of Malty’s Warkophobia…

    January 19, 2011 at 14:35

    actually ben – one more question out of interest – when you finished your book and handed in to the publishers, how much do they try and change? What’s that process like and did you ever have to fight to keep things in the book?

    January 19, 2011 at 15:59

    Thee was nothing about specific sentences or turns of phrase, but my editor did want me to dial up the technical side of thing (correct weapons, vehicles etc.) on the grounds that the people reading the book would love that kind of thing.

    My copy editrix (she makes sure all your grammar is correct) did point out that one of my metaphors didn’t seem quite right. She had a point and I happily changed it.

    otherwise I’m delighted to say that many phrases and lines that I thought were a little odd remained untouched. That’s one of things that makes this far more pleasant than writing ads: 90% of what you do lives rather than dies.

    January 19, 2011 at 19:40

    Ben, is it available here in North America? I’ll happily buy it provided there isn’t a blurb on the cover describing it as multi-layered.

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