March 4 – 10: “How do you prepare to start a new book?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5It is often said that the first chapter is the hardest to write. This week ITW members Brad Parks, Kay Kendall, Eileen Cook, Jacob Stone, Sherry Knowlton, Bonnie Kistler, Keith Dixon, Desiree Holt, Diana Rodriguez Wallach and Jerry Amernic share some insight on how they prepare to start a new book. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along – you don’t want to miss it!

 

International bestseller Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His novels have been published in fifteen languages and have won critical acclaim across the globe, including stars from every major pre-publication review outlet. A former journalist with The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, he lives in Virginia with his wife and two school-aged children.

 

Eileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV. She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. She’s an instructor/mentor with The Creative Academy and Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program where she loves helping other writers. Eileen lives in Vancouver with two very naughty dogs.

 

Before Kay Kendall began to write fiction, she was an award-winning international PR exec, working in the US, Canada, Russia, and Europe. Ask her about Moscow during the Cold War—and turning down a CIA job in order to attend Harvard. An avid fan of history, she chooses to set her books in times of turmoil and change—the Vietnam War, second wave feminism, Prohibition. After living in Canada’s frozen clime for some years, she and her Canadian husband have thawed out since 1990 in her ancestral home of Texas. They share their abode with three rescue rabbits and one bemused spaniel.

 

Jacob Stone is the pseudonym for Dave Zeltserman, an award winning crime, horror and mystery writer. As both Dave Zeltserman and Jacob Stone, he has published 22 novels and dozens of short stories, and his novels have been translated into six languages. His crime novel Small Crimes, which topped NPR’s best crime & mystery books in 2008, has been made into a Netflix original film starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Molly Parker, Gary Cole, Jacki Weaver, and Robert Forster. His crime and horror novels have been named by The Washington Post, NPR, American Library Association, WBUR, and Booklist as best books of the year, and his mystery short fiction has won the Shamus, Derringer and Ellery Queen’s Readers award (twice).

 

Sherry Knowlton, award-winning author of the Alexa Williams suspense novels, Dead of Autumn, Dead of Summer, Dead of Spring and DEAD OF WINTER, developed a lifelong passion for books as a child. She was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name. Now retired from executive positions in the health insurance industry, Sherry runs her own health care consulting business. She is also “rewriting retirement” by turning her passion for writing into a new career. She draws on her professional background and global travel experiences as inspiration for her novels. Sherry lives in the mountains of south central Pennsylvania, where the Alexa Williams suspense series is set.

 

Bonnie Kistler is a former Philadelphia trial lawyer. She spent her career in private practice with major law firms and successfully tried cases in federal and state courts across the country. She and her husband now live in Florida and the mountains of western North Carolina. They have two daughters.

 

 

Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was 13-years-old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. He’s the author of seven novels in the Sam Dyke Investigations series and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. When he’s not writing he enjoys reading, learning the guitar, watching movies and binge-inhaling great TV series. He’s currently spending more time in France than is probably good for him.

 

USA Today bestselling author Desiree Holt is a winner of the EPIC E-Book Award, the Holt Medallion and a Romantic Times Reviewers Choice nominee. She has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning and in The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, USA Today, The (London) Daily Mail, The New Delhi Times and numerous other national and international publications.

 

 

Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of the Anastasia Phoenix Series, three young adult spy thrillers (Entangled Publishing, 2017, ’18, ‘19). The first book in the trilogy, Proof of Lies, was a finalist for the International Thriller Awards for best Young Adult Novel. It was also named by Paste Magazine as one of the “Top 10 Best Young Adult Books for March 2017.” Bustle also listed her as one of the “Top Nine Latinx Authors to Read for Women’s History Month 2017.” The second book in the series, Lies that Bind, debuted March 2018, and was named an Amazon “Hot New Release.” Diana is also the author of three award-winning young adult novels.

 

Jerry Amernic’s first novel was Gift of the Bambino, about a boy and his grandfather and how they’re  bound by baseball. His research on Babe Ruth led to BABE RUTH – A Superstar’s Legacy, the first book ever about the legacy of the man. His novels include The Last Witness about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in the year 2039, and Qumran about an archaeologist who makes a dramatic discovery in the Holy Land.

 

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.

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43 Comments
  1. Actually starting a new novel isn’t hard. It’s finishing it that’s hard! That’s why so many writers have drawers full of abandoned manuscripts.

    But if you start your novel the right way, I believe you can make it easier to reach the finish line.

    When I start a new novel, I know two things: the basic premise, and the closing scene. That closing scene becomes my polestar. It’s the target of the story arc and I use it to guide my trajectory while writing the rest of the book.

    With House on Fire, the premise was: what happens to a happily blended family when the wife’s child dies in a traffic accident, and the husband’s son is arrested for vehicular homicide. The closing scene was always full-blown in my mind: it showed the mother finally coming to terms with her grief while combing out her stepdaughter’s hair.

    I made a lot of false turns over the course of writing the book, but that closing scene never changed, and I think it enabled me to course-correct until I finally ended up on the right path.

    1. I had a similar experience. When I wrote the first draft of PROOF OF LIES, I knew exactly what the ending would be. Over the many many drafts, the chapters it took to get me to that ending changed greatly–especially the first chapter. I ultimately ended up publishing the book with a prologue to show my character with her parents back when they were a happy family. This allowed the reader to get more invested in them when everything fell apart a few pages later. But no matter how many times I changed those first 100 pages, the final 50 pages remained relatively the same. I always knew the end game.

  2. I always struggle when people ask me how long it takes me to write a novel- because it depends when you want to start the clock ticking. When I started writing as soon as I had an idea I would rush to the keyboard to nail that idea to the page before it got away. I eventually became convinced that ideas (like wine- one of my other favourite things) are best when left to age for a bit.

    Now when I get an idea for a book I let it roam around in my brain for awhile. I turn it around and upside down thinking about how it might be different from various points of views, where it makes sense to start, possible twists etc. I read any books that I might need for research and then take more notes than seems possible. (Many of these notes totally random and that make no sense to me later such as “Thai nuts?” Only when I feel the burning need to write do I sit down and get going.

    The final trick is to keep writing. Starting is easier than finishing so bribe yourself any way that works to keep you butt in the seat to finish those pages.

    1. That’s very true. The fastest I wrote a novel was just under 2 months, but I’d been thinking about the book for over 10 years, and I was able to write it so fast (93k words) because it had reached a combustible point.

      1. I love that term combustible. That’s it exactly- the point where the story just takes over. Alas, it can take a long time (say a decade or so depending) to get to that point. That’s why I try and have a lot of ideas swirling around in my head.

  3. First chapters are hard. Before I’m finished with a book, I probably spend more time writing and rewriting the first chapter than any other part of the book. But, I find that thinking about the first chapter is what launches the book concept as a whole. And, although I outline and do research before I begin to write in earnest, the first chapter is the exception to that rule. Often I write a draft of the first chapter before the outline and research is finished – just to help put in the right frame of mind and to help me enter the new story I’m about to create.

  4. When I started writing seriously I also started reading books on the craft, many of which suggested you would probably have to ditch your first chapter. How true. In fact, the first Sam Dyke book ended up lighter by 70 pages when a friend told me the beginning wasn’t working …

    I soon realised this was inefficient and a waste of my time, so I now spend quite a while on ensuring the first chapter does a number of things:

    1. introduces new readers to my ongoing character, ensuring he’s funny, cynical and tough.
    2. sets a location and an ‘atmosphere’ that is intriguing to read about.
    3. because my character is a private detective, creates an interesting case for him to solve.

    Having spent a while as a pantser, I’m now a dedicated plotter so I’m always clear where the story is heading, structure-wise. Having said that, it’s fascinating to me to hear the characters I’ve created actually talk, so I try to introduce dialogue as quickly as possible so I can learn who they are. Because I like dialogue that is full of conflict, I think this gives readers an opportunity to be entertained and interested and, hopefully, to be willing to continue.

  5. Jeez. I struggle with how to start this Thriller Roundtable post, much less a whole book.

    But let’s begin with some basic blocking and tackling. This is a thriller, so in your first chapter, you need to either have someone do something very bad, suggest something very bad is about to happen, or—preferably—both.

    It doesn’t need to be blood, gore, and guts splattered everywhere. If anything, it’s better if you save that for later. It’s really about setting the tone.

    And setting the reader on edge.

    In my forthcoming novel (THE LAST ACT, March 12), I have a federal prosecutor snatched off the street in West Virginia and—the reader presumes—brutally killed (though I leave the actual killing off the page, leaving it the reader’s imagination). This is being done by a group of thugs from a Mexican cartel, suggesting that cartel-level violence is coming to America, and that there will be more to come.

    In the one before that (CLOSER THAN YOU KNOW) the scene is nothing more than a couple wandering into the local Social Services office to receive a document, except after 917 words you realize, Holy hell, this dude is about to use Social Services to steal someone’s baby!

    The real trick—and this might be the hardest balancing act out there—is that you have to give enough information to make the reader care without giving away too much. To me, there’s nothing worse than the book that begins with someone running/being chased . . . but I don’t know who they are or why they’re being chased; or someone talking about how emotionally devastated/ripped apart their world is . . . . but I don’t know what’s caused it.

    I call that “pointless vaguery” and it makes me put down whatever I’m reading and move on. Even if the scene is balls-to-the-wall action, you still have humanize the situation just a little bit, provide some context, or give some indication of why it matters in the larger scheme of things. If the reader can’t answer the question Why should I care?, then you probably need to go back and start over.

    Hey, never said this was easy.

  6. Eileen, you’re so right: Marination is an absolutely critical step in the recipe!

    I usually have a book in my head for anywhere from months to years before I actually start writing it. Usually sometime during that time, the right first chapter comes to me.

    1. It was such a learning process for me to give an idea time. I think I was afraid the idea would disappear if I didn’t write it down RIGHT AWAY. Or I was afraid that I would somehow miss out. Learning to be patient is a good life skill all around.

      Also- love your books.

    2. The longest time I had an idea in my head before writing the book was about 25 years! It was such an interesting true-life story I didn’t want to mess it up, and it took me that long to find a way to introduce the story – which was an event from WWII – into a contemporary setting. These days I find it can vary. The last book I wrote was about 5 months gestating; the one I’m currently planning was about 6 weeks! Some ideas just seem more amenable to becoming a story than others.

      1. That’s a great point Keith. I think some times we have ideas that need longer than others to come together or until we have the confidence in our craft to make them happen

  7. Sometimes I think I spend as much time creating the first chapter of a book as I do the entire book itself. That’s because for me, it is the door the reader will walk through, and if it doesn’t take that person right into the feeling of the story, I have not done my job. I work very hard on giving the characters form and substance, so the reader can “see” them and understand why they do what they do. Before I begin I do a detailed profile for each major character that includes emotions, mental state, how they will react in certain situations, how they interact with others, even their hopes and dreams. I set the mood for the story that will capture the reader, and often I rewrite a paragraph several times until I get it just right. Once I am happy with Chapter One, I review my outline of the rest of the book and make adjustments where necessary, based on the mood and character designs in the first chapter.

  8. I’m like Sherry in that I spend more time writing and rewriting the first chapter than anything else. But what triggers a new novel? For me it can be different things. My first novel, Gift of the Bambino, was triggered by the death of my father and ultimately it became a mechanism to cope with mourning. The idea for the second one, The Last Witness, had been with me for a long time — what happens with the last living survivor of the Holocaust? Literally years of research went into it before I began to write and then I couldn’t stop. But what had been the first chapter soon became Chapter 2 as I later incorporated a new ingredient that wasn’t even with me when I set out. I find that novel writing is not a precise road map. At least, not for me. My next novel, Qumran, is a biblical-historical thriller and the idea for that arrived like a light bulb going off when I read a magazine article about an ancient, mummified corpse found in a melting glacier. Then, I started to write, and the plot and characters just took over.

  9. Keith, I’ve had a similar experience in ditching part of the first chapter for my second book, DEAD of SUMMER. A critique partner convinced me that I didn’t need to start at the very beginning of a scene; that I could start in the middle to greater effect. She was right. I’d like to think that I’ve fully learned the lesson of diving right into the action. But, sometimes I still write it. Recognize that extraneous material can go. Then cut it on my own. I suppose that’s progress?

    1. Yeah, that’s one of the things I’ve learned over time – get to the action as quickly as possible. Writing detective stories as I do, there’s something in the genre about scene-setting, though – the PI approaching the new client’s big mansion, or watching as a blonde dame walks into his office, smoking coolly … I like these tropes myself when reading, say, Robert Crais, and I’m loathe to abandon them entirely. Having said that, I do sometimes start with a more action-based prologue to set up a sense of danger before slowing down for the introduction of the detective and his new client … In a way I’d like to set things up more like Brad suggests in his post, but I haven’t yet found a way to do it within the conventions. Must try harder…

  10. No matter what type of novel I’m writing–thriller, crime, horror, mystery–I write detailed outlines first in which I break down each chapter. I need that roadmap even if I might deviate from it later. So for me it should be every bit as easy to write the first chapter as it is to write any later chapter, but it isn’t. Even though I know what I’m going to write, it’s still hard to get that first page written, and I think as a writer we’re creating a fictional dream for our readers and a fictional world for ourselves, and with each page this fictional world becomes something more organic, more real, and as we immerse ourselves into this fictional world, the writing becomes easier.

    In a more general sense for outlining and plotting, our role as writers is to get the reader immediately invested in our work, so I start all my books right before something big is about to happen, and I make sure the reader knows that.

  11. Above Brad Parks wrote, “I usually have a book in my head for anywhere from months to years before I actually start writing it.”

    That’s also true of me, at least for the books I feel most passionate about. I have one brewing now, and the Inciting Incident has been with me ever since my first book was published in 2013 when I was in the ITW debut author class–what a year that was. The series I began was to be 4-5 books long, and the capstone would be this Incident.

    It has stayed with me, and now that book #3 came out less than a month ago (AFTER YOU’VE GONE), I’m eager to sit down and handle this Inciting Incident. I’ve given it so much thought. And yet, I know I must wait to begin when I have three key elements in mind. I’m a hybrid between a pantser and a plotter:
    The big crime/the Inciting Incident
    Who did it
    …and Why s/he did it.

    And then, ordinarily, I fill in the middle with red herrings and motivating emotions. But this time, for once, I know that piece. I just have not fingered Who Did It and Why.

    Last week I had a CT scan. As I lay there for an hour, listening to the loud clacking, even through my ear plugs, I ruminated on the plot of my new book. As I made progress on plotting, the loud clacks diminished. While in the past I’ve had linear plots and one point of view, this time I will have two different time periods and at least two points of view. That makes it more imperative than ever that I have a basic road map before I begin.

    I do feel I am getting closer to having the basics figured out. I am simply not there yet. But I will be. (And oh yes, the CT scan was clear.)

      1. Thank you, Eileen. That scan is done but wrangling the book road map becomes a work in progress. I am enjoying the challenge, though, so that is a very good thing. Agonizing over it is not. So, so far so good.

  12. Sort of on topic is the importance that’s been put into first lines, and they are important as they act as a gateway to the fictional world we’ve created. We need good first lines, no question, but to me what’s more important is a great last line. And nothing is better for a last line than a line that flips everything the reader has thought about the book on its head. That might be more possible to do in the horror and noir genres than thrillers, but to me as a writer nothing is more rewarding than having a great last line that changes everything.

    1. I just wrote the same thing! That “hook” with the first line is so important in setting a tone, especially in a thriller where you really need to create the right mood. And that’s very true about the ending. You want to end on a line that’s as strong as the one you began with.

      1. It is so much harder in the thriller genre to end on a stunning last line than in horror or crime since a thriller is like an amusement park ride that has reached its logical end. Most of the bad guys have been caught and the danger has subsided. But it can be done with an epilogue that sets up the next book in the series (assuming a series).

        But that’s always my goal–make that last line a stunner.

  13. For me, not only is the first chapter important, but the first sentence is important. I spend a lot of time thinking of what that first line will be, because it sets the tone of the writing voice for the entire novel. Once I’ve got that line, I can move on.

    As for the first chapter as a whole, it’s often the scene you will be reading at all your book signings. So I make sure it’s succinct, and it ends with a cliffhanger. Building suspense is key for all chapter endings, but I think it’s especially important for Chapter 1, because you want the reader to turn the page (or buy it!).

    So the first chapter of PROOF OF LIES opens with, “Only my parents could make a trip to Europe seem dull.” It tells the story of the last day Anastasia spends with her parents before they leave for what she thinks is a normal work trip, only they get in a heated argument before they go. It ends with, “I didn’t realize that would be our last conversation. I didn’t realize they’d never come back.”

    1. I agree with you about tone, Diana. That first sentence can establish the mood you want to carry throughout the book. Is it dreamy or bleak or whimsical or just-the-facts-ma’am? But often I don’t find the right first sentence until I’m well along in the book. I go back often to tweak and sometimes even trash that first sentence.

      1. Definitely true! I spend more time rewriting the first chapter than anything else in the book. This is especially important for writers in the query process, because to nab an agent you need an eye-popping first five pages.So you gotta follow the old rule, “Don’t be afraid to cut your darlings.”

      2. Bonnie, I’m with you. I tweak or rewrite the first sentence multiple times — often during the first or even second whole-book edit. Sometimes, it helps to have a better feel for the entire book in order to refine the first sentence.

  14. Given that most thrillers are written in multiple 3rd person POVs, who starts off your thrillers–your hero, antagonist, or someone else? In four of my Morris Brick crimes thrillers, I start the first chapter with the antagonist POV since they’re the ones who are about to trigger the something big that is about to happen, and in only of these books do I start with my hero. How about other folks here?

    1. All of my Sam Dyke novels except one are told from the first person POV, but all of them shift to 3rd person occasionally to take in the perspective, usually, of the bad guys or one of Sam’s colleagues. Having said that, I’ve opened twice with Prologues that take inciting incidents happening to characters other than the protagonist or antagonist, so they’re kind of trailers to set the tone and get the reader interested. I make them short, however, so the reader doesn’t think that these characters are major players. The first chapter then starts in Sam’s first-person POV so readers know exactly who they should invest in.

  15. My last novel QUMRAN — that’s where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered — is about an archaeologist in the Holy Land. The first line was this: ‘It was something that rendered all my earlier finds into nothingness.’ That was the only book I’ve ever written where I didn’t change the first sentence. It just seemed to work, but most times that isn’t the case. The key to writing is always rewriting and the number of times I have redrafted the first chapter in a novel is well, a lot. But sooner or later you have to call it a day which can be difficult if you write fiction.

    1. No wonder you didn’t change the first sentence- it’s great! But I hear you on the struggle of trying to figure out when you’ve revised enough.

  16. First impressions count, and in our hectic days, a too quick judgment on an opening paragraph can cause a potential reader to put a book down and pick up another, if s/he even bothers to step foot in a bookstore. Same thing if a potential reader opens up the “look inside” function on Amazon.
    Therefore it is understandable that all us writers work hard on openings. But it is still a crap shoot. What appeals to me may not appeal to you.
    I always read the section in MYSTERY SCENE magazine that notes good opening lines. Often ones that are chosen don’t seem great to me at all.
    In the end, we have to do our best as authors and then hope that we connect with some readers somewhere.
    In my opinion, it is more difficult to craft a satisfactory closing to a book. But at that point, the reader has gotten that far anyway, but a bad ending can color a person’s overall impression of a novel.

    1. I totally agree about the “look inside” feature on Amazon. As a reader, I admit to buying/not buying books based on this. If, for example, I see a novel won an award or a friend recommended it, before I purchase I always “look inside” to see if it grabs me. And that first glance is always the first chapter. A great first chapter can make up for a lot.

      I teach writing at the collegiate level, and I tell my students the same thing, “A great introductory paragraph can make up for a lot.” It can lift a student’s essay an entire grade because it wakes up a tired professor.

      Same is true for first pages. Avid readers read a lot (duh), so wake ’em up!

  17. Agree with all of the above. First page, first paragraph, and yes the first sentence too. It’s absolutely true that first lines mean a lot. And as Kay said it’s like a first impression when you meet somebody new. Two of my favorite first lines are these: “All this happened, more or less” (Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut) and “It was a pleasure to burn” (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury). I defy anyone to read those sentences and not die to know what’s coming next. You are compelled to go on and that’s what it’s all about.

    1. I also think of how often I am at a bookstore and I pick up a book and flip to that first page. I read a line or two and if it grabs me I am way more likely to head to the cash register.

    2. Vonnegut and Bradbury – two of my favourite writers! About first sentences … I have two other favourites, The Great Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke, and they’re different in how they set up their first chapters. Elmore often has whiz-bang grabbers for his first sentence (in fact someone online gathered them all together as great examples of how to write first sentences), whereas Burke is much more considered … you tend to be drawn in by the rhythm and beauty of his prose, not necessarily by the ‘hook’ in the first sentence. I hanker after the second but I think I tend towards the first because that’s what’s expected these days.

  18. I’ve used short prologues in a few of my books, and they can advantage of getting the reader immediately into the middle of the action and wanting to dive into the book to fully understand what they’ve just read. So if your book needs more of a buildup before the action can get underway, a prologue can help solve the problem of hooking the reading and letting them know what’s coming.

  19. I agree, Dave Zeltserman. I have used prologues, too, sometimes in firs person when the rest of eh book is in third. It can be a greta way to set the mood and prepare the reader for the upcoming action.

  20. Diana Wallach, I agree with you on Amazon;s “Look Inside” facility. I, too, use it when determining whether to buy a book. And with at in and, K try to craft my first chatter (or prologue, if there is one) to capture the reader. I also use the first chapter to set the personality of my hero, as I do in my Strike Force books about a Delta Force team. The action and then hero’s involvement are a great opportunity for meet set his personality and how he will react to what happens. One of my books, DO YOU TRUST ME, opened right in the middle of the action. It was one of my early books and taught me a good lesson in drawing in the reader.

  21. This has been a very entertaining week on the roundtable – the best I’ve participated in. I’ve also started reading one of the books by one of the authors here … and if you think I’m telling you which one, you’re nuts! 🙂

  22. I’m not surprised that this has been an unusually great discussion. The problems inherent in writing openings are huge. Getting started and overcoming start-up fears are huge too, just speaking about emotions. Never mind the writing difficulties.

    I had totally forgotten what I did in my new mystery (about to celebrate its one month anniversary next week, so it really is brand new–AFTER YOUVE GONE).
    Unlike my first two books, I was satisfied with my opening chapter and had been for many months. Right before going to press, however, I added a brand new opening chapter. I didn’t call it a prologue since it is out of fashion to do that–although I think that rule is silly. I just changed all the chapter numbers and wrote a new chapter one. It was a letter to my protagonist’s granddaughter in 1962. I set the stage for the tale that unfolds in 1923. The subtitle for the book is AN AUSTIN STARR MYSTERY PREQUEL. The Austin Starr books take place in the late 1960s. I did this on a whim, and my editor and publisher were fine with it. Readers have had no objections, in fact liking it best of my three books. However, my critique group had a fit and said NO don’t do that. I am so glad I ignored them.
    Sometimes you just need to go with your gut.

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