BONUS Roundtable discussion! December 6-12: “What’s it like to write a serial novel?”

Imagine a literary jam session with 22 of your favorite masters of pulse-pounding fiction and you have WATCHLIST: Two Serial Thrillers in One Killer Book. Jeffery Deaver conceived of the characters and put the plot into motion and Jim Fusilli leant a sharp editorial eye, finely orchestrating this chorus of suspense that includes such top writers as Lee Child, Joseph Finder, Lisa Scottoline, Gayle Lynds, P.J. Parrish and many others. Dramatic tension ties the novellas together as each thriller titan leads the reader down dark alleys and around blind corners, saving the fireworks for the climactic endings, also crafted by Jeffery Deaver.

To celebrate the paperback release, Watchlist contributors Lee Child, David Hewson, David Corbett, John Ramsey Miller, Brett Battles, Ralph Pezzulo, James Grady, Gayle Lynds, Jim Fusilli, James Phelan, SJ Rozan, David Liss, John Gilstrap, Erica Spindler, PJ Parrish, Peter Spiegelman and Joseph Finder, along with MJ Rose (who wrote the introduction) will answer the question, “What’s it like to write a serial novel?” Be sure to read their observations in the comment trail!

Lee Child was born in 1954 in Coventry, England, but spent his formative years in the nearby city of Birmingham. By coincidence he won a scholarship to the same high school that JRR Tolkien had attended. He went to law school in Sheffield, England, and after part-time work in the theater he joined Granada Television in Manchester for what turned out to be an eighteen-year career as a presentation director during British TV’s “golden age.” During his tenure his company made Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect, and Cracker. But he was fired in 1995 at the age of 40 as a result of corporate restructuring. Always a voracious reader, he decided to see an opportunity where others might have seen a crisis and bought six dollars’ worth of paper and pencils and sat down to write a book, Killing Floor, the first in the Jack Reacher series. Killing Floor was an immediate success and launched the series which has grown in sales and impact with every new installment. Lee has three homes—an apartment in Manhattan, a country house in the south of France, and whatever airplane cabin he happens to be in while traveling between the two. In the US he drives a supercharged Jaguar, which was built in Jaguar’s Browns Lane plant, thirty yards from the hospital in which he was born.

David Hewson is the author of more than sixteen novels, most of them set in Italy. The Garden of Evil, the sixth in his Nic Costa series, was the American Library Association’s Mystery of the Year. His first novel, Semana Santa, was made into the movie Angel of Death with Mira Sorvino. He recently published the eighth Costa novel, City of Fear, and a revised edition of Samana Santa under the titel Death in Seville. A former journalist with the London Times, he lives in the UK.

For fifteen years, David Corbett worked for the San Francisco private investigation firm of Palladino & Sutherland, and played a significant part in a number of high-profile criminal and civil litigations, including the Lincoln Savings & Loan Case, The DeLorean Trial, the Coronado Company marijuana indictments, The Cotton Club Murder Case, The People’s Temple Trial, the first Michael Jackson child molestation case, and a RICO civil litigation brought by the Teamsters against former union leaders associated with organized crime—as well as numerous other drug, murder, and fraud cases. David’s first novel, The Devil’s Redhead was widely praised, and nominated for both the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel of 2002. His follow-up, Done for a Dime, was also broadly acclaimed (“the best in contemporary crime fiction”—The Washington Post), was named a New York Times Notable Book, and was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Novel of 2003. He followed up with 2007’s Blood of Paradise, which has been compared to the work of Graham Greene and Robert Stone, and was selected one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by The Washington Post. His fourth novel, Do They Know I’m Running?, arrived in bookstores on March 1, 2010, and instantly garnered widespread praise.

John Ramsey Miller began his writing career as a journalist, including an exclusive interview with Martha Mitchell during the Watergate era. His interview with Mitchell appeared on The Dick Cavett Show when John himself was interviewed by Cavett.  As a commercial portrait photographer, John photographed notable recording artists for album covers for major labels and portraits of recording artists for illustrating music related magazine articles and for publicity purposes. Additionally John produced a thought provoking series of photos after setting up an unheard of ‘studio’ at Angola Prison Death Row. John continued to deal with controversy with an insider’s no holds barred account of the obscenity trials of 2 Live Crew. The book, As Nasty as They Wanna Be: The Uncensored Story of Luther Campbell of the 2 Live Crew, takes the wraps off the notorious rap group, revealing the people behind the bad-mouthed persona. Switching genres to produce a popular thriller, The Last Family, John entered a relationship with Bantam Books that included the spine tingling Winter Massey series from which UPSIDE DOWN was nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award for best PBO (Paper Back Original)and INSIDE OUT was nominated for a BARRY Award for best PBO.

Brett Battles was born and raised in southern California. His parents, avid readers, instilled the love of books in him early on. Though he still makes California his home, he has traveled extensively to such destinations as Ho Chi Minh City, Berlin, Singapore, London, Paris, and Bangkok, all of which play parts in his current and upcoming Jonathan Quinnthrillers.

Ralph Pezzullo is a former journalist, an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and poet, and the author of At the Fall of Somoza, Plunging into Haiti, and the mystery novel Eve Missing. His novel The Resurrection of Thomas Lear was a semifinalist for the Faulkner Prize.

James Grady is the Montana born author of thriller novels. He graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 1974. During college, he worked for United States Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana. [1] Best known as the author of Six Days of the Condor, which was famously adapted to film as Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford. Father of Rachel Grady, director of the acclaimed documentary Jesus Camp.

New York Times bestseller Gayle Lynds is the award-winning author of nine spy novels and has been called the Queen of Espionage. Her newest, THE BOOK OF SPIES, published in March 2010 and is the beginning of her first series.  Her first Gayle Lynds novel MASQUERADE, was a New York Times bestseller and a People magazine “Page-Turner of the Week.” Publishers Weekly, the bible of the industry, recently compiled a list of the best espionage fiction. At the top were works by le Carre, Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, and Graham Greene. MASQUERADE was number eight, following Ken Follett’s classic The Eye of the Needle, which Gayle loves. Others of her novels have been prize winners. THE LAST SPYMASTER won Best Novel from both the American Authors Association and the Military Writers Society of America. THE COIL won Best Contemporary Novel from Affaire de Coeur. MOSAIC was Thriller of the Year at Romantic Times. MESMERIZED was a Daphne du Maurier Award finalist. With Robert Ludlum, she created the COVERT-ONE series and wrote three of the novels. One of them, THE HADES FACTOR, was a CBS miniseries. Another, THE PARIS OPTION, was People magazine Beach Read of the Week.

Jim Fusilli Jim Fusilli is the author of five novels including HARD, HARD CITY, which was named Best Novel of 2004 by Mystery Ink magazine.  In 2008, his first novel for young adults, MARLEY Z AND THE BLOODSTAINED VIOLIN, was published by Dutton. He was editor of, and contributed a chapter to, THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT, Audible’s best-selling “serial thriller,” which was named Audiobook of the Year by the Audio Publishers Association.  He edited and contributed a chapter to its sequel, THE COPPER BRACELET. His short story, CHELLINI’S SOLUTION, appeared in the 2007 edition of THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, and his story THE GUARDIAN was selected for A PRISONER OF MEMORY, a 2008 anthology of the year’s finest mystery short fiction.  In 2009, his short fiction appeared in the anthology BOSTON NOIR and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  Jim also is the rock and pop critic of The Wall Street Journal.  PET SOUNDS, his book on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds,” was published in 2006 by Continuum and in 2009 by Audible.

James Phelan was born in Victoria, Australia. He was introduced to the world of books at an early age, with such works as The Hobbit, Treasure Island and The Jungle Book helping to inspire his overactive imagination. As a teenager, he read many thriller novels, like the work of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. In 1995, at the age of fifteen, he began his first novel and the character of the protagonist of Fox Hunt was born. After high school, he went on to study architecture and English literature and graduated with a Master of Arts in Writing from RMIT while working for The Age newspaper. As of 2009 he teaches writing at Swinburne University in Melbourne and is a PhD candidate there.1 In 2006 he was one of the Cleo (magazine) 50 Most Eligible Bachelors in Australia. As an architecture student he worked for two years on the Federation Square design team.

SJ Rozan, a native New Yorker, is the author of twelve novels. Her work has won the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Nero, and Macavity awards for Best Novel and the Edgar for Best Short Story. She’s also the recipient of the Japanese Maltese Falcon Award. BRONX NOIR, a short story anthology SJ edited, was chosen NAIBA “Notable Book of the Year.” SJ has served on the National Boards of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and is ex-President of the Private Eye Writers of America. She speaks, lectures and teaches, and she runs a summer writing workshop in Assisi, Italy. In January 2003 SJ was an invited speaker at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The 2005 Left Coast Crime convention in El Paso, Texas made her its Guest of Honor and she was Toastmaster at Bouchercon 2009. A former architect in a practice that focussed on police stations, firehouses, and zoos, SJ Rozan lives in lower Manhattan.

David Liss is the author of five novels, with more on the way. His debut novel, A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) with its hero, the pugilist turned private investigator Benjamin Weaver, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won him the 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First Novel. David’s second novel, The Coffee Trader (2003) was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year’s 25 Books to Remember. His third novel A Spectacle of Corruption (2004) the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper, became a national bestseller. David’s fourth novel, The Ethical Assassin (2006) is his first full-length work that is not historical fiction. David’s most recent novel, The Whiskey Rebels, is set in 1790′s Philadelphia and New York. The third Benjamin Weaver novel, The Devil’s Company, will be in stores in late 2009.

John Gilstrap is the acclaimed author of five thrillers: SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM, SCOTT FREE, EVEN STEVEN, AT ALL COSTS, and NATHAN’S RUN. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

A New York Times and International bestselling author, Erica Spindler’s skill for crafting engrossing plots and compelling characters has earned both critical praise and legions of fans. Published in 25 countries, her stories have been lauded as “thrill-packed page turners, white- knuckle rides and edge-of-your-seat whodunits.” Raised in Rockford, Illinois, Erica had planned on being an artist, earning a BFA from Delta State University and an MFA from the University of New Orleans in the visual arts. In June of 1982, in bed with a cold, she picked up a romance novel for relief from daytime television. She was immediately hooked, and soon decided to try to write one herself. She leaped from romance to suspense in 1996 with her novel Forbidden Fruit, and found her true calling. Her novel Bone Cold won the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award for excellence. A Romance Writers of America Honor Roll member, she received a Kiss of Death Award for her novels Forbidden Fruit and Dead Run and was a three-time RITA® Award finalist.  Publishers Weekly awarded the audio version of her novel Shocking Pink a Listen Up Award, naming it one of the best audio mystery books of 1998. Erica lives just outside New Orleans, Louisiana, with her husband and two sons and is busy at work on her next thriller.

PJ Parrish is the New York Times bestselling author of ten Louis Kincaid and Joe Frye thrillers. The author is actually two sisters, Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols. Their books have appeared on both the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists. The series has garnered 11 major crime-fiction awards, and an Edgar® nomination. Parrish has won two Shamus awards, one Anthony and one International Thriller competition. Her books have been published throughout Europe and Asia.

Peter Spiegelman is a veteran of over twenty years in the financial services and software industries, and has worked with leading banks, brokerages and central banks around the world. In the mid-1990’s, Peter left his position as a Vice President at a major Wall Street firm to become a partner in a banking software company. The company’s product soon became a leader in its marketplace, and in the late-1990’s Peter and his partners sold their business to a larger firm. Peter retired from the software industry in 2001, to write. His debut novel, Black Maps, was published by Knopf in August, 2003 and won the 2004 Shamus Award for Best First Novel.Peter was born in New York City and, aside from a brief stint in Los Angeles, grew up in the New York metropolitan area. He is a graduate of Vassar College, where he majored in English. He lives with his family in Connecticut, where he is currently at work on another John March novel.

Joseph Finder is the internationally bestselling author of nine novels, including the ITW Thriller Award-winning Killer Instinct. His most recent book, the Thriller-nominated Vanished, introduced international security consultant Nick Heller, who will return in Buried Secrets in spring 2011. Joe’s novel High Crimes became a hit movie starring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, and his 2004 bestseller Paranoia is currently in development as a major motion picture. Joe lives in Boston with is wife and daughter, and Mia, a needy golden retriever.

MJ Rose is the international bestselling author of eleven novels including THE REINCARNATIONIST which was the inspiration for the 2010 FOXTV series Past Life.  Rose is also the co-author with Doug Clegg of BUZZ YOUR BOOK. Rose was a founding board member of ITW. Founder of Authorbuzz.com – the first marketing service for writers. And is the co-founder of Peroozal.com. Rose been profiled in Time magazine, Forbes, The New York Times, Business 2.0, Working Woman, Newsweek and New York Magazine and has appeared on “The Today Show,” Fox News, “The Jim Lehrer News Hour” and features on her have appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad, including USA Today, Stern, L’Official, Poets and Writers and Publishers Weekly.

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.
10 Comments
  1. I wish I knew what it was like to write a serial novel.

    I had my chance. And I blew it.

    Part of ITW’s mission statement reads: “To promote the thriller genre at an innovative and superior level for and through our Active Members.” And that was what I focused on as an ITW board member.

    It was in that capacity I went to Audible in early 2006 with the hope that they’d be interested in doing an exclusive original project with us. Audible was not only open to the idea but also instrumental in coming up with this project.

    It seemed like a great experiment to further the purpose of getting more attention for thrillers and the writers involved in the genre. (And it has been.)

    I didn’t get to write a chapter in the first one – my job was get the project going and work with Audible on all marketing, PR and ITW contact aspects – but when we all decided to do a second volume I volunteered to write a chapter.

    The way this project worked (with each novella) was Jeff Deaver wrote the first chapter and Jim Fusilli (our amazing editor) send it on to the next author to write the next chapter and so forth. Each subsequent author got the sum total of what had been written up to that point. Each author could go wherever he or she wanted next

    If you ever get asked to do something like this – ask to go early.

    I got The Copper Bracelet when it had about 80% of the chapters written. I read it. The story was complex and fast moving and terrific. More than a dozen killer chapters. But all the characters had been created and established and it was going to take a lot of time to figure out where to go next.

    At the time I was in the middle of finishing a novel but I put it aside for a long weekend to write my chapter.

    Except nothing I tried worked.

    The first idea I had would have required many days of research – time I didn’t have. So I came up with another idea for which thread to pick up and where to take it.

    I sat down to write. Wrote. Read it over. Threw it out. It sounded like the voice in my current work in process. It didn’t belong. I tried again. The next effort was more of the same. Not a bad chapter but a chapter out of my book – not Copper. I tried every trick I knew – but I wasn’t doing the Copper Bracelet justice.

    After four horrific days and endless awful drafts I called Jim, said I was mortified and miserable and bailed.

    We had a waiting list of authors who wanted to be involved the one who stepped in for me did an amazing job… its one of the best chapters in the novella. Much better than I could have done.

    Looking back on it now – I wonder if maybe I was just too damn intimidated to write a chapter in such auspicious company. It wouldn’t surprise me if I was. I mean look at that list of authors. Wouldn’t you be?

  2. I loved this project, and salute MJ for creating it. I’m a bit of a chicken, so I begged to be allowed to write an early chapter, which happens to be Chapter 2 of the Copper Bracelet. As thriller writers, deviousness is our business, and my devious brain wanted to create mayhem — without cleaning up after myself.

    Ah, the sweet spot. That’s the beginning of the book when all things are possible and nothing has been screwed up yet. I love the sweet spot, so to be able to follow Jeff Deaver and set into motion characters in Chapter 2 that I had no idea would even survive my fellow collaborators most murderous intentions over the next twenty or so chapters was delicious.

    I hope there’ll be a third in the series. I’m volunteering!

  3. I loved it! When Jim asked me I jumped on it, with one condition: like Gayle, I wanted to be at the beginning. I also wanted to make the mess, not clean it up. When I got the chapters before mine, which were exciting and dramatic, it seemed clear there was only one sensible thing to do. So I took a character who’d so far been mentioned but only in passing, someone who was on a continent no one was thinking about, and made her central. Trooped off to Africa, had someone try to kill her, (who? did I know?), had her leave him for dead (was he? did I know?) and run off with something she’d been secretly hinding (what? did I know?). Since the hardest part of a book is making everything make sense at the end, this was a blast. Though I did feel sorry for my colleagues who were dealing with the last third of the book. But they sure came through!

  4. It was a great experience and a unique opportunity. Most authors will tell you that coming up with ideas is never a problem, but it’s an unusual pleasure to be able to riff on the work of someone like Jeff Deaver.

    There’s definitely a difference between coming in late to the story and being part of the beginning. In the first book I had one of the later chapters, and so much had happened that I had to spend a lot of time figuring out the story, and how my chapter would fit into all the different storylines.

    I also had to look at the book as a whole and think about the reader’s experience, as well as the writer’s. It would have been a lot of fun to write an action sequence, but looking at the book, there had already been five great action sequences — so what was needed was something quieter. It was less fun to write, but (I hope) more satisfying for the reader.

    The second time around, I knew better. I told Jim I wanted one of the earlier chapters. My chapter was early enough that I could create some characters and set things up that other people would have to deal with later on (insert evil laugh here).

    THE COPPER BRACELET gave me the chance to write a scene and use material I hadn’t found a place for in my own books. I used research I’d done for VANISHED, but hadn’t been able to weave into that story. Moscow’s my area of expertise, but I hadn’t had an opportunity to use Moscow as a setting in a long time — so I jumped at the opportunity to set something there. I was able to draw on old memories as well as a recent visit. There’s a scene at the KGB retired officer’s club that’s based on a real place I was invited to, something very few people have a chance to do. I couldn’t wait to write something based on that experience.

  5. As so many of the other contributors have written, it was a blast, and I’m hugely grateful to Jim for the invitation.

    Working on Chopin was a very different writing experience for me. When it comes to plotting, I’m a planner—an outliner. I find that having the mechanics of plot worked out, at least at a high level, frees me to think about things like character development, sense of place, etc. Chopin was another kind of animal altogether.

    Lacking my friend SJ’s foresight, I cavalierly (foolishly?) answered “Whatever” when Jim ask if I cared which chapter he assigned me. As it happened, I got Chapter 11— a point about two-thirds of the way through the story, and very much on the receiving end of the first-act mischief-makers (yes, SJ, I’m talking about you). My colleagues had built quite a rollercoaster—all twists and loops and altitude—but I had to think about getting the passengers back on the ground. No outline, no net, but lots of fun. Thanks again, Jim!

  6. I participated in The Chopin Manuscript; what an interesting and unique experience it was! I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I agreed to be a part of the project, but when I received the initial story information from Jim, I thought I’d missed some correspondence. But I hadn’t–we really were supposed to just ‘jump in.’ For a plotter, that was just a wee bit beyond my comfort zone.
    However, after a momentary ‘Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into’ I was off and running.

    Jeff had begun a sweeping tale set on a global stage. Since I write stories of intimate terror set in the United States, I chose an early chapter and to build on Jeff’s introduction of the main protagonist’s pregnant daughter back in the U.S.
    Then the real fun began (insert evil laugh here) because I could really let my imagination take flight without worrying about making it all thread together later. Somebody else’s challenge. Which, in the end, might be what made the project so successful.

  7. I loved working on this project, and am honored to have had a role in both The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet.

    I lucked out, landing in the first half of each novella, far enough in to have fertile ground to till, but not so far as to have to worry about wrapping up any loose ends. (Fraying those ends is a lot easier than stitching them back together.) I also cheated a little in Chopin, but only after getting permission from our intrepid editor, Jim Fusilli. I wanted to throw in a big twist that occurs at the airport in Rome, but in order to pull it off, I had to go back and plant a couple of sentences into my predecessors’ chapters.

    In The Copper Bracelet, I got to mine my old days in the Military Industrial Complex to introduce thermobaric explosives to the plot. It felt like a godsend to nobly fulfill my obligations to the project and to my fellow authors without having to do a lot of additional research.

    As I wrote my sections, I tried to tee up future twists to be exploited by my successors, but more times than not, those twists ended up being threaded an entirely different way than I had anticipated. That speaks to one of the coolest things about a project like this: the ability to watch the creative processes of people I so admire.

  8. Just popping in to say I’m REALLY enjoying this discussion! I just bought my copy of Watchlist, and now that I know some of what went on behind the scenes, and who wrote which chapters, it’s going to be GREAT fun to read it!

  9. I got word from Deaver about THE COPPER BRACELET project and said yes straight away. When I learned a bit about the concept and the chapters came in, every couple weeks a new batch, I got nervous: the story was heading to the very setting, Kashmir, that I was wrapping for my current novel. True, all that research I’d done, to the point of trekking through areas that could be shelled by random Indian or Pakistani artillery at any moment, could be brought to bear. But what if the storyline crept too close to my own novel? In the end I was too busy writing my chapter with bullets flying around to worry about coloring the place in too great a detail — and thankfully there was the chance to move the plot away from what I’d just done in LIQUID GOLD (a water crisis between India and Pakistan, with a flashpoint in their shared area of Kashmir). Great minds think alike? Maybe. Could be we’re all plugged into the world events that populate our novels. Hey, imagine if there was some kind of website we could use for research that had all kinds of cool leaked documents and diplomatic cables…

    Anyway — I particularly think that this type of fast-paced serialised work is perfect for today’s time-poor reader, and the chapter-by-chapter concept would work wonderfully if published weekly or so and consumed on ebook devices.

    For now, I’m wondering what happens in Book 3…

  10. Well, it’s appropriate, I guess, that I am weighing in late — again. When I was asked to be a part of this enterprise, I didn’t hesitate. But then, I am used to working with a collarborator (my sister Kelly) so I figured “how tough can it be to work with 15 other egos?” Ha! My next miscalculation came in telling editor Jim Fusilli we’d happily write a late chapter. I think this has something to do with my anal personality — you know, not being able to walk past a picture frame without straightening it. When we got the chapters, we were impressed but appalled. Great stuff! Bodies flying, cars exploding, arcane musical clues, exotic locales, nefarious villains and white-hat heros! But what hell were we going to do to make any sense of it? Well, with Jim’s steady hand, we managed to submerge our OWN egos and pick up the melody of the chorus, so to speak. We think both the stories work in a magnificently manic way — sort of like a classic roller coaster does. Would we ride it again? In a Coney Island minute!

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