Nov 15-21: “What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of thriller authors?”

Join ITW members Jeff Sheratt, Katia Lief, Steven James, Michael Parker, Joshua Corin, David Golemon, Reed Farrel Coleman, Stephen Coonts, and Peter Steiner as they offer their best advice to upcoming thriller authors. And don’t forget you can also ask our panelists questions!

Jeff Sherratt has had two novels published by Echelon Press, a traditional independent publisher. The second, Guilty or Else (2009) was nominated for the Left Coast Crime Panik Award. Jeff is a past board member of Sisters in Crime/LA, and currently a member of Mystery Writers of America. Jeff has been a speaker at many book events. Jeff’s third mystery novel in the Jimmy O’Brien series, Detour to Murder, was released by ZOVA Books on October 12, 2010

The first two thrillers in Katia Lief’s new series, YOU ARE NEXT and NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME, were recently published by Avon/HarperCollins, and have been called “brilliantly diabolical,” “chilling,” and “impossible to put down.”  The series will also appear in the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands.  Katia is the pseudonymous author, as Kate Pepper, of five previous thrillers. She teaches fiction writing at The New School in Manhattan and lives with her family in Brooklyn.  wwwkatialief.com

Steven James is the award-winning, national bestselling author of four critically acclaimed thrillers: The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight and The Bishop. He has a Master’s Degree in Storytelling and has taught writing and creative communication throughout the world since 1999. When he’s not writing and speaking he’s playing basketball, rock climbing or eating pepperoni pizza with his three daughters.

Michael Parker is the author of seven novels in differnet genres: Thriller, War and Historical Adventure. He has been writing all his adult life and never fails to deliver, keeping the reader turning the pages until the end. He has been married to Pat for over 50 years and lives in Spain. His new venture into POD has resulted in the paperback, NORTH SLOPE; an ice cold, action packed thriller set in the frozen wastes of North Alaska. Available on Amazon.

Joshua Corin’s first novel, the screwball thriller Nuclear Winter Wonderland, published with Kunati Books in 2008.  Nuclear Winter Wonderland later went on to be named by Booklist as one of the top ten debut crime novels of the year. His next work, While Galileo Preys,is the first in a series about a Long Island housewife-crimefighter named Esme Stuart.  It was published to rave reviews by MIRA in September 2010, and its sequel, Before Cain Strikes, will be in stores March 2011.

David L. Goleman grew up in California and now makes his home in New York.Event and Legend are the first two adventures in the Event Group series.

Called a “hard-boiled poet” by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman has published twelve novels. He is the three-time winner of the Shamus Award, has been twice nominated for the Edgar, and has also won the Barry, Macavity and Anthony Awards. He is an adjunct professor at Hofstra University and edited the anthology Hard Boiled Brooklyn. Innocent Monster, his most recent novel, was released in October.

Veteran naval aviator Stephen Coonts shook up the action-adventure game with his 1986 bestseller, Flight of the Intruder. He followed that dazzling debut with a string of adventures starring intrepid hero Jake Grafton — a series that only gets more popular with each new release.

Peter Steiner is a former professor of German and New Yorker Cartoonist.  He currently divides his time between painting and writing.  He has had three novels published–“Le Crime,” “L’Assassin,” and “The Terrorist.”  His website is plsteiner.com.

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
47 Comments
  1. My advice to the next generation of thriller writers would be the same advice I would give any writer of any generation working in any genre. Over the span of my career, I’ve learned some hard lessons, lessons that have helped buoy me when times were tough. There have been some big paydays and some smaller ones, but there are always paydays nonetheless. I’ve managed to be a working professional writer for twenty years and it is perhaps the achievement of which I am most proud. During that time I’ve developed a kind of shorthand to express my writing philosophy. And as an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, this shorthand has helped me get through to my students and to impart my hard-learned lessons.

    Fall in love with writing, not with what you’ve written–New writers tend to cling too dearly to their work. The only way to develop your talents and craft is to do a lot of writing. If you refuse to let go of your early work, you will never develop the chops you need to be a professional.

    I have my children and I have my writing. I try never to confuse the two–See above. Writing is words on a page. Those words can be changed, edited, replaced. Your children can’t be replaced. Your words are not precious. Your children are.

    If it doesn’t say it on the page, it doesn’t say it–You won’t be standing over the shoulder of the agent or editor to whom you have submitted your work, so you better make damn sure what you have to say is on the page.

    A genre writer’s first job is entertainment–The most beautiful, poetic prose in the world won’t count for anything if you can’t sell the manuscript or keep the reader turning the pages in one direction.

    Writing is art. Publishing is business. Find the line where the two meet–If you are writing to earn a paycheck, you have to figure out the balance between art and commerce.

    I hope you find this stuff helpful or, at the very least, I hope it gets you thinking about what you’ve signed on for. This is a tough business and the sooner you can cut through the struggles at the beginning, the sooner you can reach your goal.

    1. I especially love the statements: Writing is art. Publishing is business. How true is that! And, you’re right, the balance is tough to find. I think the key is to write the best book you can, turn it in, and move on. Looking back and wondering how you could have changed what you’ve written reminds me of a story told by a well-published friend of mine. Her first BIG book came out, and a friend in our local writers’ group sent her a three page, single spaced critique, telling her ways she could improve the work. What about IN PRINT did he not understand?

    2. Thanks, Reed. I especially like your reminder that “If it doesn’t say it on the page, it doesn’t say it.” If you have to justify or explain your writing, your writing’s not done. It sounds so simple…

    3. Good comment about our first job being that of entertainment. I think in our culture where there is an ever-expanding war for people’s eyeballs and attention this is a vital reminder. No one needs to read our stuff. And with more and more competition from video games, social networking, etc… we will have to get better and better to keep and attract readers.

    4. “I hope you find this stuff helpful”

      Reed, it’s ALWAYS helpful when a guy with your record of success shares his insights into the craft and business of writing. The practical advice is the stuff people pay to hear at writers conferences, and we’re getting it free. Plus, it reminds us that we’re not dealing with any challenges the “big guys” don’t, or didn’t, have to deal with.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Believe it or not, I actually believe the next generation of thriller writers has a far better opportunity to get their work placed in front of those who would make a difference in their careers than those that were predisposed to travel the traditional road to being published. There are so many different avenues of delivering your ideas, stories, and work in this genre to editors and publishers than ever before thanks to the electronic formats offered by companies for self-publishing. In other words, you can have a verifiable sales record of achievement long before you submit your work to a publisher, and that gives a publishing house much more of a heads-up to what it is they are looking at when a submission is made.

    Now that that is said, it doesn’t mean that the work and effort does not have to be made, on the contrary; since the electronic and self-publishing areas have expanded opportunities to men and women who aspire to be thriller writers, that means the field in this genre has more than quadrupled in number and the challenges facing new thriller writers are there more than ever—it is a crowded and diverse field with many ideas new and refreshing. The differing and exciting stories are there to be discovered and the world is always hungry for new talent. The many stories out there are like mathematics and music, it has never all been written, and its never-ending. Also the challenge of being tenacious will always be an advantage to someone who truly believes in what they have done. If you believe in yourself, others will also.

    Again, as much as the publishing world and the writing of thrillers have changed, the more it stays the same. Come up with something different and tell it your way, be tenacious in getting your work in front of others and be deliberate in your style—hard work always pays off!

    1. David,

      I appreciate all your comments, especially the ones about the importance of tenacity, but one of the coolest things I’ve read this morning is the reference, in the bio on your website, to a person’s mind being “the greatest Special Effects machine in the world” in relation to it’s ability “to visualize a story.”

      The greatest special effects machine in the world. Wow. With that kind of power at hand, properly channelled and applied, how can we NOT succeed?

  3. 90,000 is a big number.

    Don’t believe me? Go ahead and try to imagine 90,000 marbles or 90,000 slices of bread or 90,000 baby turtles. You can’t do it, can you? I mean, maybe you have the kind of mind which can approximate massive quantities, but there comes a point when the human brain just stops counting.

    By the way, if you were to count 90,000 baby turtles, one turtle each second, without making any mistakes, you wouldn’t be finished for another twenty-five continuous hours, and when was the last time you tried to do anything for 90,000 continuous hours?

    So yes, 90,000 is a big number.

    It also happens to be the word count benchmark for the contemporary crime novel.

    This isn’t to say that a thriller containing only 80,000 words has fallen short. At the end of the day, all good works of fiction are long as they need to be. But the demands of the market, such as they are, dictate a certain page count, and that page count, when broken down, comes out to around 90,000 words.

    Given the daunting task of writing so many words must, to quote a man who never feared a word count, give us pause. How can we even dare to sit down in front of our notebooks, typewriters, and computer screens and ever hope to reach the end? Most of us learn our craft through the writing of short stories, but I know, in my case, that I wrote so many short stories because, frankly, I was intimidated by those 90,000 words.

    So how do prolific novelists surmount this behemoth? Are these writers just made of sterner stuff than mere mortals? I can’t speak for most, but I can speak for myself, and here’s the trick I use to help me reach that magic number:

    I cheat.

    If someone told me to sit at my desk and write a novel, then and there, I’d be dumbstruck. The vastness of the task would leave me a cowering, sopping mess. And yet I’ve written five novels and am currently revising Novel #6 and I do it through the implementation of something I’ve only recently acquired: common sense.

    In other words, I don’t sit down to write 90,000 words. I can’t. I sit down to write 1,000 words. 1,000 words sounds a lot more manageable, doesn’t it? I don’t worry about the rest of the novel or what time it is or how I’m going to fill up almost an entire ream of paper with my words. I concern myself simply with that day’s 1,000 words, which comes out to around 4 1/2 double-spaced pages.

    Now you’re not scared of 4 1/2 double-spaced pages, are you?

    If so, change it to single-spacing. Now you only have a little over 2 pages to write. 2 pages. That’s it. 2 pages a day. Please, you’ve written emails longer than that (perhaps emails you regret sending, but still).

    2 single-spaced pages a day x 1 month = 60 pages. 60 single-spaced pages = 30,000 words. In one month, you’re already 33% finished…well, with your first draft, at least.

    Because, alas, the marathon doesn’t end once you type Word 90,000. The marathon ends when you’ve retooled, rewritten, refurbished, and revitalized your manuscript, and that process could last for an indeterminate length. But you’re a writer! You’re in it because you love the process, right?

    Right…?

    1. I’m employing this technique immediately. I can only imagine the satisfaction of selecting all, applying double space and doubling my work at the end of each day. Brilliant!

    2. Okay, I’m one of the new kids on the block. As a trial lawyer, my writing for thirty years was stuff I could throw at a judge to convince him I was right or at least not to rule in favor of my opponent. Usually, the more paper the better. Now, I’m on my third novel and I have had the same problem each time. I finish my story at around 110,000 to 120,000 words. Then, I have to work my way back down to that 90,000 range. My latest, to be published in March, was submitted at around 100,000 words (after I had already wiped out what I thought was a lot of really good prose with the delete key). My editor said to get it down to the magic 90,000. I cut to 94,000 and told her that she was welcome to delete more. She didn’t. But, as I say, all that undoubtedly comes back to my being a long-winded trial lawyer.

      1. Larry,

        First of all, congratulations on reaching Novel #3!

        It’s funny how some editors really do hold hard and fast to that magic number. I was always taught that it’s the quality which matters most, not the quantity, but, that said, I guess I do understand that publishing is a business and publishers are concerned that if they produce a thriller that is only 75,000 words, readers might be disinclined to purchase it.

        That said,some of my favorite thrillers – The Eiger Sanction, Day of the Jackal – fall far short of the Magic 90,000.

        -Josh

    3. Christine,

      That single-space to double-space trick is one I employ whenever I feel like I’ve made no progress in my novel and yes, you’re absolutely right – it’s so very, very satisfying to watch the page count jump from 50 to 100 with the push of a button.

      -Josh

    4. Man, I wish I could get my novels down to 90,000 words, it would take me two-three months less time to write them! I average about 130,000, but as I tell participants at the writing seminars I lead, only include as many words as necessary to tell your story. Some novels are short stories on steroids. Believe me, I’d write shorter thrillers if the stories were shorter ones to tell. So however long our books end up being, to me, it all gets back to telling the best story possible for our readers.

      1. Steven, I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes I wish I had it in me to tell those long and lovely stories I grew up with, the epics of Dickens and Tolstoy, but that’s just not in my creative DNA.

        We all write the novels we’re meant to write.

  4. Ian Fleming, he of James Bond fame, said that you can write a thriller in six weeks. The spelling and grammar can be left to the professionals. Not exactly good advice but there is an essence of truth in what he says. If you believe you can write, then write. The finished product, if it is good enough, will be taken on by an agent if he or she believes there is something that will interest a publisher. When Margaret Powell wrote ‘Below Stairs’, it was a diary of her experience as a servant in a London Town House. She wrote in longhand in an exercise book. She went on to become a best selling author. Writing is all about self belief as well; if you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. Don’t worry too much about neatly typed, double spaced A4 pages; that can come later. Get your novel down, show it around to a few agents and see what kind of response you get. Eventually the manuscript will end up in a presentable fashion for the publisher, but essentially it’s the content that’s sells, not not the formatting. Be prepared for the long slog. Writing a novel can take up to a year if you do it properly. Then comes the hard bit; selling it to an agent or a publisher. When you send out submissions, send them to about five or six agents at a time. Publishers too. I once waited a year for a reply from an agent. Thankfully I had found a publisher by then. And remember the old saying; ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’. To become an established writer, you need about five books in print. This will give you the readership that will keep the sales coming in. Don’t get carried away with the figures you see in the Press about world wide sales of millions either; this happens to the very few. Do your homework too. I don’t mean research, which is essential, but look at the market, see where the genre is going. Young Adult (YA) seems to be in vogue at the moment, but for how long? If you want to write crime novels, remember it’s a crowded market. But the single, most important piece of advice is ‘Never Give Up!’ And good luck.

  5. Quite honestly, I think that each generation of writers has the same job—to tell great stories to their audiences. As readers’ expectations continue to evolve, so should our stories. That said, here are a few thoughts to get the conversation started.

    1 – Spend the extra time making your story great. Create a character we want to spend time with, want to cheer for, and want to worry about. Make it clear what the character wants, how far he is willing to go to get it, and what is at stake if he fails. Whether you consider your story character-driven or plot-driven, every story, at it’s core, is struggle-driven. Draw us into that world.

    2 – Find a fresh angle. I believe that readers today are very narratively astute. They can smell a gimmick a mile away. So when you weave your stories, overlay several integral subplots and then tie everything together at the end. And steer clear of cliches. Please, please do not give us another cop who—guess what!—is struggling in his marriage because of his job or because of his drinking problem.

    3 – Be concise. I’m finding that people today really do have shorter and shorter attention spans and, with the emergence of ebooks (which seem to sell better when they are shorter), I’m afraid that we are going to have to start telling simpler and less complex stories. Or maybe we just need to write leaner, sharper, more gripping stories. In either case, wandering prose is out, and taut, intense stories are in.

      1. There are times when I have to rewrite a scene 100 times. I tell people this at writer’s conferences and most attendees think that I am joking. Reality for me is that writing is hard work and perseverance is just as important as inspiration.

    1. Great points, Steven. The first point is my favorite and, even though it’s often difficult and always time-consuming, it’s the one I enjoy working on the most.

      I like the way you push beyond the “character-driven” versus “plot-driven” debate and refer to a story as “struggle-driven.” When I saw that, I immediately wondered if “cause-driven” worked as well as “struggle-driven.”

      But, but then I decided that maybe the “cause” would be the grand but less personal issue that the external story is built around, but that the “struggle” would be the more personal and interesting story of how, when, and where the character, from her initial internal debate, through every obstacle, and all the way through the climax, is forced to answer the question, “Is there not a cause?” and then chooses to take up that cause.

      I know – after reading that paragraph you may be thinking I should pay more attention to third point. 🙂

      I may be getting into an area of discussion more appropriate for next week’s topic. Even though you’re not listed as a panelist for next week, I hope you’ll chime in during the discussion. I listened to the audio of your lecture “6 Secrets to Novel Writing That No one Told You” from this year’s CraftFest, and I like the way you explain aspects of storytelling.

      1. Thanks. To me, stories are about escalation and not simply character studies or lists of events happening. So, a romance is not really about romance, it’s about romantic tension. As soon as the romance begins, the tension is gone. A thriller is not just about scary things happening, it’s about the escalation of danger through the story. So, when I talk about struggle-driven stories, I’m really looking for ways that the tension, i.e. the unmet desire of the protagonist, is tightened or deepend.

  6. Ohhhh, man! What a topic.
    Actually I have two suggestions for beginning writers, and I doubt if either of them is original. First, you must learn the craft of story-telling. Reading the leading authors in the genre, critique groups, doing it and doing it and doing it until it begins to read well–all have their place. Literally, there is no substitute to putting butt in chair and writing. (If there were, I would have discovered it by now!) Agents and editors have told me repeatedly over the years that they see so many poorly written manuscripts, the glitter of the mediocre sometimes seems irresistible.
    Second, originally is trumps. Come up with an original plot, not the same old stuff that everyone else is scribbling. To use a trite phrase, think outside the box.
    It is not enough that your stuff is “as good as” some published novelist. It must be better. They have already got the published guy or gal.
    In a nutshell, you need an original story told well. That is precisely what the agents and publishing industry are looking for.

    1. Stephen, I love how you reiterated two of the thoughts I’d shared in the entry just above yours–storytelling and originality are key. I think you are spot-on!

    2. “Agents and editors have told me repeatedly over the years that they see so many poorly written manuscripts,”

      That, combined with your advice to write an original story told well (with emphasis on “told well”), offers a load of hope for new writers who may be discouraged by all the statistics, myths, and cafe wisdom that may lead us to believe we’ll never make it. Based on conversations I’ve heard in workshops, and writing samples I’ve read, I’ve come to believe that many writers get so caught up in trying to be clever (or lazy) that they forget the importance of basic writing competency. Well-crafted sentences and orderly paragraphs may not be an original or cutting edge writing style, but they still seem to be in high demand among publishers.

      Okay, now I have to ask that roundtable participants and “serious people” allow me to indulge in a fan moment and say that I can’t believe I’m on the same forum as the guy who wrote Flight of the Intruder. Aaagghhhh 😉

  7. Any advice I might offer would have to begin with this question: why do you want to write a thriller? Do you want to be famous? Do you want to make lots of money? Is it because you admire a particular thriller writer and want to emulate him or her?

    I pose this question because, as others have suggested before me, every novel has its thrills. Admittedly, some thrills are more subtle and peculiar than others, but the subtle ones are often the most interesting. Jane Austen’s novels have subdued and yet fascinating thrills. We know Elisabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy will eventually find each other. But how they will do it, and how their journey is described is, in a very real sense, thrilling. All beautiful writing is always thrilling.

    What you think a thrill is and why it entices you will lead you in one direction, and thinking differently will lead you in another. The same with how you measure and regard success. Is it how many books you sell, how much money you make, or how well your books are written?

    Great works are about people, about us. The action is less important than the people. In the thriller, internal conflict takes a back seat to the thrill. But the thrill at the heart of the great work is internal and integral. It is compelling and profound and unique. There are thrillers that are great books–“Dirty Snow” by Simenon, for instance. But most often the thrill at the heart of the thriller is merely amusing.

    There is nothing wrong with amusing. Amusing is fine. But the greater the work of literature, the more it asks of its readers. I think every beginning writer should be aware of these differences. Because as these differences fall out, so too do two very different, even contradictory versions of success.

  8. I read everyone’s posting and want to thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts and advice. As a published “cozy” mystery writer, currently working on a thriller, I find it a much different beast and a daunting transition. In fact, many of my fellow writers and friends have questioned my decision to try a new genre. Your insights bolstered my conviction that I’ve made the right choice to pursue this novel–and the one that will follow.
    Chris

  9. Chris

    I was once told by a neighbour of mine that he would read my novel, it was my first by the way, and would let me know where I had gone wrong! How nice of him. He had such a superior attitude that it hadn’t occurred to him that my publisher was quite happy with my work.

    Stephen Coonts suggests coming up with something original and thinking ‘outside the box’. I’ve never known how to do that because I never know whether I’m outside the box or in. As for original, where do you find it?. My first publisher told me that there are only nine stories really that you can write, but a million different ways of writing them!

    I read many of the children’s classics as a boy, including such tomes as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Flynn, Scrooge, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and many others. But the first author to introduce me to nerve tingling, in your face thrills was Mickey Spillane and his alter ego, Mike Hammer. Hardly stuff of literary awards, but what a writer! He was the first to outsell the bible in one year. Do you have that kind of ‘writer’ in you? He wasn’t writing anything new, simply doing it in such a way that he dragged you into the story and made you feel that you were taking the punches as well as dishing them out.

    So write what you think is a cracking good story. If it isn’t, you’ll soon find out. If it is; the world could be your oyster.

    Michael

  10. HOW TO MAKE THRILLER SOUP

    Ingredients:

    1. Character (prepare by understanding)
    2. Story (keep it moving)
    3. Voice (this is the glue…or call it art)
    4. Revision (in abundance)
    5. Trust yourself (just do it)

    Now take the ingredients and:

    Pre-heat brain by reading extensively of all kinds of novels, not just thrillers, and consciously ask yourself why and how one works well whereas another works less well. What is one author doing that makes you care about a character and a story that is missing in a less successful novel? For example:

    *What matters to you most in a novel you love?* Is it the action, or the characters, or both? Did you connect with the protagonist before getting swept into his story? Or did his story captivate you before you realized you cared about him? But mostly, are you even capable of loving a novel and getting swept into the action if you don’t care about the characters?

    *Why can’t you stop reading?* Is it because a character you care about needs something important that’s beyond her reach but maybe she’ll find it in the next chapter (awesome cliffhanger)? Is it because you know something the beloved protagonist doesn’t know, and you have to make sure she’ll be safe before you dare turn out the light and go to sleep? Or is it because the author has created a haunting narrative voice that has alerted you that something exciting is about to happen and if you just read a few more pages you might find out?

    *When you read a thriller, what exactly makes you feel scared?* Is it what you know about the story so far, or what you don’t know? Do you feel more afraid if a bomb goes off in the first sentence of the first chapter a novel, or if it goes off in the last sentence of the first chapter after you’ve gotten to know and care about at least one of the main characters? In other words, what does an author do that makes you care and makes you want to keep reading?

    Take your first two ingredients: character and story. Figure out what exactly is at stake, and how to establish it quickly. That’s your conflict. Throw it into the pot first and let it simmer. Do not overcook.

    Meanwhile, contemplate narrative voice. What is it? Is it your personal voice? A character’s voice? The voice of an omniscient narrator? Voice is a somewhat obscure element you must conjure as if by magic. It provides the feeling of the novel, and is the art part of the recipe. Without voice, or flavor, or soul, no one comes back for seconds.
    Once your thriller has all the necessary ingredients, read and revise until the seasoning is just right—and then revise some more. If a chill runs up your spine every time you reread the scary parts, you know you’ve created suspense. It’s ready.

    Now it’s time to share your feast with agents, editors and, most importantly, readers. Don’t worry about how another writer would have done it. This is your dish, baby—be proud of it and serve it up smiling.

    Just remember, if it were chicken soup, creating great, believable, beloved characters would be the chicken. It’s not a thriller if no one cares. One of the biggest mistakes new thriller authors make is thinking that action is the only ingredient that counts, but I beg to differ. Character matters.

    (Read my recent review of the Stieg Larsson trilogy for more on the importance of great characters: http://whatarewritersreading.blogspot.com/2010/11/katia-lief.html)

    1. Katia,

      I love the recipe, and I found your explanation of voice to be one of the best I’ve read.

      About the link to your Larsson review – I don’t think it works. At least, it doesn’t work from my computer. But, I wanted to read your take on Larsson, so I Googled “Katia Lief Stieg Larsson” and found the review. It was worth the effort. I appreciated your analytical approach to Larson’s novels. I admire Larsson for accomplishing the daunting task of completing three huge novels, but the only reason I read as far as I did was because I was determined to learn why everyone was telling me I HAD to read them. I wonder how much of the buzz was just people jumping on the latest bandwagon. More importantly, how can other writers build such a bandwagon . . . without dying first?

      Again, great recipe and review.

  11. Katia said something about caring for a character. I remember reading Stephen Coonts novels and really liking Jake Grafton. I suppose I ‘cared’ what happened to him. I have just finished two novels by C.J.Sansom. The stories are set in England during the reign of Henry V111. The main character is a hunchback lawyer called Matthew Shadlake. The writing is so good that you can actually feel all of Shadlake’s pain and anguish as he gets involved in the murky world of politics and murder. So yes, character building is important. The reader should be able to slip the character ‘on’ like a glove and become immersed in the story.

    I’m not convinced, though, that Steven James is right in saying that re-writing a scene 100 times is acceptable. I believe that if you haven’t got it right after a few re-writes, you never will; you’ll just keep changing it and changing it, never being able to make up your mind if it’s right or not. Go wth your instincts.

    1. Michael, thanks for your thoughts–the topic of how many times to approach a scene is a good one to reflect on. I envy anyone who can write a scene and make it work with only minor revisions. It’s a rare gift. In my writing, I believe that context determines content and as my stories grow (they are usually about 500 pages and have five or more point-of-view characters), I find that changing one word or one line often affects the context of that paragraph, that scene, that chapter. So, as I’m editing, I often review the previous hundred pages or so of my book in the morning and ask myself, “What is the reader thinking about? Questioning? Wondering? Hoping for at this moment in the story?” Then, as I move forward, I have a rule of thumb that I always try to give the reader what he wants, or something better.

      Each time through my book I notice more details that can change, or scenes that might be irrelevant or need to be recast within the changing scope of the story-at-large. Regularly revising within the context of your evolving story isn’t the same as not being able to make up your mind, but, I would suggest, is another way of going with your instincts.

      1. “Regularly revising within the context of your evolving story isn’t the same as not being able to make up your mind, but, I would suggest, is another way of going with your instincts.”

        Great point. When I get caught up in my stories I don’t even think about how many times I revise, and I don’t care. It’s not something I do based on number count. It’s something I do based on feeling and the way a sentence, paragraph, or story flows. I’m not focused on numbers. I’m focused on getting it right. “Right” in that sense is of course a subjective interpretation, but if I don’t feel it, I can’t leave it alone until I do.

        If it takes me longer than it does other writers, it’s no big deal. Writing is not the first task at which I succeeded but was never the “fastest.”

  12. Agreed, Michael: definitely listen to your instincts when revising. I have found that sometimes a huge amount of revision does indeed work to fix a scene or chapter. Other times, however, I’ve had to relent and just cut the thing. If something isn’t working, let it go. If that’s hard because you love that section, then trick yourself into believing you’ll use it elsewhere and put it in a ‘Use Later’ file–which of course you’ll never actually use in reality, but if it gets you past the disinclination to toss a day’s or even week’s worth of work, go ahead and lie to yourself.

    On the subject of revision, I’d like to add that I have never had a novel published that I didn’t revise or even rewrite extensively. Once you’ve finished the writing and you’ve got what feels like a complete manuscript, it’s crucial to learn how to read your own work critically. Stop being a writer and be a reader/editor. Listen to your own reactions: Is it working? Is that part exciting? Was I surprised when I read that? Why do I feel bored every time I read that chapter? What is bothering me about that character that I can’t quite put my finger on? Sit back in the quiet and read and react. Then be ruthless and revise until you can’t find so much as a comma to change (or your deadline passes).

    By the way, these are the tools of any novelist, not just thriller authors. For thrillers, the ante is upped because the story has to really twist and turn, move and surprise. If I feel a shiver of fear during revision every time I read a supposedly scary part, then I know it’s working.

  13. So much of it has already been said. I don’t the best course for writing thrillers has changed much from my generation to the next, or from past generations to this one. It’s essential to read good books. And not just works within your own genre, but all across the board. To learn from the best of what’s come before you and take what works for you and your characters to heart. To be open to feedback and criticism – and to take full advantage of them when they come. Which means getting a hold of a very good editor or team of reviewers and taking them seriously.

    One thing in particular that’s important for all writing, but especially for writing thrillers, is to be vividly, avidly observant of the world around you. See the story within the mundane. Pick up on all those minor details that differentiate one person or place from another. Keep your eyes wide open.

    None of this is new, of course, but it’s a starting point. And when it comes to being open to feedback, it might be the hardest thing of all to master for anyone – writers or otherwise.

  14. Today as I was reading through people’s ideas and responses I thought of an area that doesn’t come up much, but is one that I think thriller writers can really grow in–asking deeper moral questions in our novels.

    I find that I like to let a question about human nature drive my narrative and bring depth to the story. So, in my first novel, The Pawn, I explored the question, “What make me different from those who do the unthinkable?” In The Rook I let my protagonist wrestle with the question “What would it take for me to step over and become like those I hunt?” In the last two books I’ve explored what’s more important–truth or justice, and what (if anything) makes human beings different from animals.

    In some literary circles, thrillers are notorious for being singularly plot-driven (or even one-dimensional), but by adding deeper and more intimate moral struggles to our protagonists’ lives we can tell stories that connect more personally and more emotionally with our readers.

    1. This is a great point about moral struggles, Steven. In my second environmental thriller, besides making it a rip-roaring adventure story (the book has a 40-page climax that takes place IN the caldera of an erupting volcano), I deliberately set things up to where every major character has to make a choice between what they believe in, and their loyalty to a close friend or a family member. A multiple “Sophie’s Choice” which I like to think adds depth to the novel.

    2. Steven, I agree that in some literary circles, this kind of derision is made, but oftentimes this derision is made by those who actually have no idea what they’re talking about. While it’s true that I’ve read some thrillers which are little more than dead trees with words typed on them, I’ve also read more than my share of “literary novels” that are equally drek.

      Is UNDER THE DOME more plot-driven than UNDER THE VOLCANO? Not at all. What it really comes down to is a matter of pace. The pace in King’s novel is much, much, much faster than the pace in Lowry’s novel, and rightfully so. Form equals content. UNDER THE DOME is a march and Lowry’s novel is a waltz. Are marches because of their expedited nature of a lesser quality than waltzes? Of course not. As with most things, it’s a matter of taste. I personally find marches to be yummy.

  15. On the subject of morality; in one of my novels the main character was an ex-IRA terrorist and ex-SAS soldier. He was a killer and in the opening sequence he killed innocent people, but circumstances forced him to work with one of the leading characters in the story and bring about a successful demise of the villains he had once worked for. The guy was as tough and as ruthless as you would expect any hard man to be, but in the end I killed him off. The reaction I had from friends who read the book was surprising. Why did you kill him off? Why didn’t you keep him? This character needs to be in another book, why not resurrect him? The only answer I could give was that as a writer I have a moral duty to ensure that good triumphs over evil. Was I wrong?

    On the subject of word count, I always used to aim for about 100K. When my publisher told me he preferred 60,000 words, but would take anything betwen 60K and 100K, he said it was because he could fit that word count into 222 pages. Of course, If I was a world wide, best selling author, I’m sure my publisher would have been happy with a lot more than that.

    1. That’s a good question about the moral duty of good triumphing over evil. I’d be interested to see that other people think along those lines. Honestly, I feel the same gravitational pull in that direction.

  16. My advice would be, first, learn about structure. Thrillers are very mechanical. They need great engineering. They are a bit like cars in that respect. They can look beautiful, but if they don’t work properly, then what’s the point (unless it’s a Jag, of course, in which case we’ll overlook the fact it doesn’t work).

    So the most important thing you need to do is learn about structure and pace and plot. For my money, the best way to do that is to take an early Frederick Forsyth novel, and go through it again and again until you have learned absolutely what he is doing. Then do it for yourself. It’s a bit like taking a BMW apart, then re-assembling. If you do that enough times, you will figure out how to make a car. Same with a thriller.

    Next, get with the times. Thrillers are stories of events. They reflect the world around them. So don’t write an old-fashioned Cold War spy thriller. Think about private military corporations (my subject). Or financial conspiracies. Or Iran. Or piracy. But make it something now and fresh we haven’t read about before.

    Okay, that’s two pieces of advice – but both valuable.

    1. “They are a bit like cars in that respect. They can look beautiful, but if they don’t work properly, then what’s the point (unless it’s a Jag, of course, in which case we’ll overlook the fact it doesn’t work).”

      I like that advice and analogy. It reminds me of some mission briefbacks I sat through. And, as one whose training as a logical, mission-focused realist often comes into conflict with his romantic impulses, such as loving Jaguars and other lost causes, it’s an analogy I can certainly relate to.

      Besides, isn’t a Jaguar just another loveable but flawed character in the story of our life?

      Okay, seriously – I’m glad you advocate the reverse engineering technique. All the great world powers have used it, and when I was a teenager it’s how my buddy and I figured out how a small-block Chevy V8 engine worked (well, after we rebuilt it, it mostly worked). Now I know at least one successful novelist used it.

      I tried the technique when I first decided to write a novel, and through subsequent writing courses, forums, books, and workshops, it’s still the most valuable thing I did, especially, as you say, in relation to structure.

      Thanks for your comments, Matt.

  17. In terms of morality and timeliness in thrillers, clearly our concepts about morality shift over time as history evolves, which could explain why contemporary thrillers are so popular: we are all (readers and writers) trying to understand and deconstruct the experience and meaning of being alive in today’s world. Which I suppose is a vote for ‘Write what you know’ and dig down deep into it. The question ‘What frightens you most?’ might be translated as ‘How best to stay alive?’ After all, human enterprise is essentially about survival…and so nothing is more exciting and terrifying than a race against death. The threat is always the same–Can we overcome death/evil?–but the terms of the threat shift over time.

    (Philosophy 101, anybody?)

    1. “(Philosophy 101, anybody?)”

      I love it! You’ve given me several “hmmm” moments this morning.

  18. Is it me, or has it gone quiet? I was under the impression that there would be some searching questions from wannabe thriller writers, but in the main I think we’ve been talking to ourselves. Or maybe my web connection has gone down. Well, today’s is the nineteenth, only three days left to talk to whoever is out there.

    In the meantime, a question from me: what’s the best way to promote a book when you don’t have a publicist or a publisher? I am embarking on POD for a while. I’ve read a great deal about the rights and wrongs of this direction, about the potential demise of traditional publishing, how e-books are going to be the best thing since sliced bread, etc. I believe this is all relevant to would be writers who are struggling to find an agent or a publisher. Any thoughts on the subject?

    1. Q – What sells a book?
      A – Buzz.
      Q – What creates buzz?
      A – Buzz.

      How to get that process started is a mystery to me. Some of the ideas I typically hear are blurbs, blogs, word of mouth, giving a free Kindle version away for a couple weeks, doing something out of the box–like the first Paranormal Activity movie which cost $10,000 to film and made over $100,000,000 because of the buzz of it being the first motion picture to be released because it was demanded by the public.

      I’m not sure, but I suppose we try what we can while we’re chunking away at our novels.

    2. “I was under the impression that there would be some searching questions from wannabe thriller writers, but in the main I think we’ve been talking to ourselves.”

      Well, I haven’t asked any searching questions, but I have tried to show my appreciation for the authors who’ve taken time to participate. I’m sure you all have other things to do. I would have jumped in sooner, but I was traveling most of the week. I suspect there are others in similar circumstances, or just lurking in the shadows. Maybe they will jump in this weekend when they have more time.

  19. Even authors with publishers and publicists have to do a lot of their own publicity these days, mainly online. Anyone can do it. You can start your own blog, and guest blog, and make (or have someone make) blog ads. You can do Google ads, both as search ads and display ads. You can make a book trailer, which is pricey, but you can always do something low budget, and put it on YouTube as well as many other sites that host videos. And of course there’s Facebook and Twitter. Publishers really want all of their authors to build a strong online presence, which is something anyone can try to do. Admittedly it’s easier with a publisher behind you, if only because you get a bit more attention, but be creative and just get the word out there. As far as I’m concerned, the internet is still the Wild West and almost anything goes.

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