November 3 – 9: “Are men’s plots more thrilling?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The Sisters in Crime Monitoring Project points out gender representation in awards. Is this bias or are men’s plots more thrilling? Do the reviews pass over thrillers with an ethnic theme, too? Join ITW members Bernard Maestas, J. Carson Black, C. Hope Clark and Mark S. Bacon for this week’s thrilling discussion!


????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????C. Hope Clark is author of the award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries and The Edisto Island Mysteries, four novels published by Bell Bridge Books, the current release being Murder on Edisto. Hope founded, chosen by Writer’s Digest for 101 Best Websites for Writers for 14 years. She’s appeared in The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Market, Guide to Literary Agents, and more, and speaks across the country. Member of MENSA, SinC, MWA, SWA, EPIC, and NINC.

Death in Nostalgia City for ITWMark S. Bacon began his career as a Southern California newspaper reporter covering the police beat.  He later wrote commercials for Knott’s Berry Farm, the California theme park. His mystery flash fiction collection, Mysteries and Murder, was published by Ether Books. He is also the author of several business books including one named a Library Journal best business book of the year. His articles have appeared in dozens of periodicals including the San Francisco Chronicle.

hardHailed by bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker as “a strong new voice in American crime fiction,” J. Carson Black writes both crime fiction, featuring homicide detective Laura Cardinal, and thrillers. The Laura Cardinal series was optioned for television by Sony Pictures Television, and later became a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Her thriller, THE SHOP, became a #1 US Kindle Bestseller. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.


godwin_coverBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games and the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.


  1. Looks like I get to kick off the discussion again this week. Sometimes there are benefits to insomnia. Well, hello, everybody! Glad to be back and I’m actually particularly glad to be able to weigh in on this topic. Also, I’ll get my shameless plug out of the way: Check out a review and interview of my upcoming second novel, GODWIN’S LAW, in this month’s Big Thrill and get your copy November 15th!

    Now, on topic. To put my answer in simplest terms, I don’t think there’s a bias in gender. I think writing is a tough business whether you’re a man, woman, or other. Granted, I write this as a man, but still.

    One thing I learned while promoting my first novel (promoting a novel by yourself, no assistance, I discovered, comes with a steep learning curve, but that’s another story) is that most reviewers are paid entities. They don’t really care who’s pitching them a story; if your check clears, they’ll review you. Likewise with a good review. If you pay the premium, they’ll rave about your book. The independent bloggers are a different story, but most of them are, gasp, women! So, no, I don’t really see a bias on the review front. I imagine a lot of awards are more a question of who’s paying for them than who wrote the book though I don’t have any personal experience in that arena, so that’s an educated guess.

    I suppose an argument could be made that, with the growing importance placed on the author’s “platform,” that there might be some reader bias but I’ve found that a larger than expected percentage of my readers are woman and older women at that. My anticipated audience was younger males so, with that said, I don’t see why there would be any bias on that front. Then, of course, there are plenty of authors (one in particular that I would love to call out by name but I’m trying to be professional) who embellish, mislead, and/or lie outright in their bios and when crafting their platforms.

    This is getting slightly off topic, but I’m also finding that “platform” isn’t that important as I search for a home for my latest novel, CONCRETE SMILE. I don’t feel I’m getting any more or less attention for it because of my gender or ethnicity.

  2. Gender, ethnicity, and bias for any reason are a fact of life. Just like we grow up in specific cultures, we grow up in tendencies to lean one way or another in all facets of life. I’m a firm believer in live and let live, and you will not find me on a bandwagon shouting for a single EEO faction, regardless what it is. That said, I believe in the statistics of awards and reviews being stated and proclaimed, so that many of us can look in the mirror and go, “Hey, I didn’t realize that I was slighting anyone by choosing to think this way.”

    The Sisters in Crime Monitoring Project began during a time women were trying to break into crime/suspense/thriller fiction. Men called many of publishing’s shots, so women struggled to break in. Today you find more women in publishing than men. Not overwhelmingly, but the scales have shifted. But keep in mind that the classic crime fiction authors were men. Who doesn’t adore Chandler and Hammett? There’s a long history there. We just have to be patient while more history is being made.

    It’s easy for men to be edgy. They were the Alphas. Then you have someone like Gillian Flynn swoop in with Gone Girl, we get highly uncomfortable with the fact she can create one of the creepiest antagonists in modern history. She’s a sign of change. We’re better today about women writing dark material, or thinking outside the maternal box. I’m rather proud of how we’re doing. But like all evolution, it takes time.

    Yes, there is a little bit of a bias that men’s plots are more thrilling. With women writing a preponderance of cozies, that bias gets perpetuated to a certain degree, but they can paint with dark colors, too. Mindsets don’t change overnight.

    Ethnicity? At the risk of touching a hot button, I think socio-economic levels dictate the volume of books written, read, sold, and ultimately judged in reviews rather than ethnicity. Personally, I believe ethnic writing today is phenomenal, rich, and eye-opening into cultures I have no immediate access to. But I also believe that popularity still rules to a certain degree even in reviews, and as long as ethnic writing sells less than other writing, that mindset will trickle into what gets reviewed. After all, reviewers want to be read, too, and therefore, they will appeal to the masses, which means majorities.

    I continue to look on the positive side. We are so far ahead of thirty, twenty, ten, even five years ago. Open-mindedness about literary value is broadening, and edges of discrimination are blurring more and more.

    1. I do think in America that ethnicity outside of economic class plays a factor. It’s really hard to sell graphic novels with Chinese main characters to a white audience, for example. Or, more famously, when M. Night Shyamalan asked his father the medical doctor for advice about filmmaking, his father said simply, “Put white people in your movies.”

      I do think fiction readers and publishers embrace a bigger tent than American film studios. But like you say, there’s a long way to go.

    2. You’re absolutely right – bias is a part of our lives. Have you ever rooted for the home team? Then you are participating in bias.

      Regarding gender, though, I have experienced a certain level of bias. When I was originally looking for beta readers for my first manuscript, I was stunned to find many men who refused to read a book by a female. When I asked why, I received variations of the same answer: Women don’t write with an edge, and I don’t want to read anything ‘touchy-feely.’

      1. I think the only way to overcome this bias, Eileen, is over time for women to show they can write edgy. We can’t make someone like us…we have to show them why they should.

  3. Is there bias against women anywhere, in any business? Of course there is. One would think folks in the arts to be a little more tolerant, unbiased, gender-blind. And as Hope points out, there are more women than men in publishing now. One of the reasons is that communication-related fields have been more open to women than say, law or engineering. But according to documents in the Rutgers University archives, only seven women won the Edgar for the best mystery novel in the first 45 years of the award. This was in part responsible for the formation of Sisters in Crime, an organization that supports and promotes women writers.

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  5. Are plots by men more thrilling? This is still a tough one for me, because despite the fact that I’m a female, my mentors have mostly been male authors. By mentors, I mean the writers whose books I love to read. Crime fiction and thrillers are mostly written by men. The most visible male authors are at the top of the game, so I’ve found them first. I read mostly male writers in my genre, although there are some fantastic female authors – Lisa Gardner, Meg Gardiner (hmmmm, maybe I should change my name to something with Garden in it) the great Patricia Highsmith, Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, J.A. Jance–tons of them. But the authors whose books taught me the most and influenced my own writing are male. I love reading them, so I love writing in that vein. I think it depends on who you are, how you grew up, and what your ear is attuned to. I fell into a more masculine (?)style of writing because I couldn’t get enough of those authors. One of the most popular genres, romantic suspense, is elusive to me. I don’t think I could write a good one. I think romantic suspense probably outsells most of the other genres, but it’s not about what sells. It’s about what calls to you.

  6. I have a question for the other author participants or anyone who would like to opt in. This discussion was started, in part, because, as Sisters in Crime points out, women are not equally represented at the Edgars. So, is a “thrilling” story a requisite for a best-novel Edgar? Cozy, less violent stories are not considered? Perhaps that’s so because I don’t see famous names like Christie, Marsh and Allingham in the list of winners. Elizabeth George was nominated once for an Edgar, but as far as I can find out, did not win.

    1. I think that’s an interesting question but is also sort of a different topic. For one, this is The Big Thrill, haha! I think we’ve got some obligation to focus on the more thrilling books. But it’s interesting to pose whether cozies and the like can compete in the categories as well. We know there’s a market for them, though I don’t think it’s the same market as ITW members’ books.

      So what’s your take on that? Is it a gender thing or do as many women write cozies as write more violent fare? Do the awards just not represent the lighter titles?

      1. I’ve had women readers come up to me at signings and speaking engagements and proclaim they do not read books that delve into violence (i.e., blood and such). I’ve never had a man proclaim such. And I can honestly say that men rarely write cozy mysteries, yet many women do. At the risk of stepping on toes, does this not show that women are not as edgy as a whole when compared to males, whether talking readers or writers? Just my observation in all my travels and talking to readers and authors. And that diversity just might infringe on awards that expect an edgier tale.

        1. There’s definitely a good audience for cozies or stories without violence, or at least muted violence.

          For me (selfishly) I have to write what I write best, and what I love to read. Even if cozies were 90% of the market, I would have no interest in writing them.

          Early in my career I tried different genres. Many of them fit poorly, and didn’t gain me the audience I craved. I think all of us have Game, and it’s different for each of us. We have to write what we love, because that’s the way to find our true audience.

          1. I like this reply.

            When I started out writing, it was just because putting the stories down on the page was easier than carrying them around in my head. I found it cathartic and never considered an audience. Once I got published, I obsessed more about being reader-friendly and marketing and it gave me nothing but grief and writer’s block.

            I’m slowly starting to get back to that point of writing being fun, writing what I enjoy, and not stressing over markets and Nielsen book scans.

            I, too, have tried out a number of genres and found some that I’m not cut out for. (As I’ve mentioned before, I really can’t write a mystery.)

  7. I recall Alfred Hitchcock saying that he only made one mystery film. The rest were suspense, in other words, thrillers. In that sense, I think it’s fair to say that male novelists tend to rely more on speed, action, suspense and violence than do women. This is not a value judgment, more of a categorization. But then one person’s thriller may be quite different from another’s.

    Personally, I like novels that are a blend of mystery and suspense: enough clues and suspects to appeal to your head, but enough peril to appeal to your emotions. That’s what I tried to do with my debut novel.

  8. Mark, I like the same kind of mix. I want a thriller, but I also want a good twist at the end. As a reader, I like to be thinking on two levels. What’s going on now (danger danger Will Robinson!) but also what is going on underneath, and I think most thrillers have a mystery underlying the story. So we get one last kick! (Or sometimes a string of kicks.)

      1. Thanks, Hope! I don’t think I could write a book without a twist. Even when I tried to break into paperback historical romances a hundred years ago… there were the twists. I think our minds work that way!

  9. As J. Carson Black has said, I think it depends on the plot. I don’t read many thrillers any more because I’m fed up with the crazy sociopath/psychopath who was abused by his (or her) mother. I also don’t read cozies. If an author writes to formula and the plot is clear from the second chapter (usually the first) I stop reading and never pick up that author again. I recently threw my Kindle across the room because the thriller that began with an interesting premise devolved into every cliche (flat tire, woods at night, missed calls, no cell service, flesh wound, duct tape, ad infinitum). Didn’t matter if the author was male or female. I loved “Gone Girl.” Fresh, intriguing, with a lovely twist. Scare me, make me think and feel, but don’t bore me.

    1. There are all sorts of memes I don’t like. For instance, I hate kidnapped children stories (although I’ve written a couple). I just don’t gravitate to those and I don’t think I can write them very well. Everyone has something they love to read and love to write, and I like mainstream thrillers (usually they have twists and are often also police procedurals). Over the years my writing has evolved, and so has my method. I used to list all the characters I thought would be in the story. I’d also write a synopsis. Later, it got to be a handful of plot points. Now I meet my characters on the page (there’s a mental placeholder for them, and then they show up.) have an inciting incident and an ending “in mind” and write episodically. I figure if I don’t know exactly what will happen next, the story will remain fresh. But it took years and years for that to happen, to trust my subconscious. If a flat tire doesn’t feel right–too obvious–out it goes.

  10. Is there a more challenging question here: do (statistically speaking!) women and men find different things thrilling? Does the publishing industry recognize the difference, or do they stuff women authors, women’s thrills, and especially female protagonists into other categories?

    If Gillian Flynn had flipped the protagonist to be the wife, would it still have been classified and marketed as a thriller? If you search for “thriller” on Random House’s website, 47 books are listed (none of them Flynn’s, she’s in “Mystery — Thriller”), and no more than 4 of them are written by women (assuming all “initial” authors are women). I didn’t look at each book, but it did appear that nearly the same numbers apply to the gender of the protagonist. Do a search on amazon for “thriller 2014” and a similar skew appears.

    But if you go back to the very beginning the mid-century and the formation of classic thriller structure, you find any book set in a “domestic sphere,” especially if the protagonist is a woman, is likely to be categorized as anything but thrilling. However, I challenge anyone to explain why “The Chocolate Cobweb” isn’t a thriller (except perhaps for its title and the lack of expensive shiny machines).

    So, do women tend to find different things thrilling than men? I learned in one of my “why aren’t there more women in high tech” seminars that women tend to look for external validation, and men tend to look for internal validation. If thrills reflect our fears, then it only makes sense that there might be some gender differences. Which is not to say that you have to be a man or a woman to appreciate a “man’s” or “woman’s” thrill, just that we’d tend to gravitate toward different scenarios and settings.

    I don’t find fighting off a horde of enemy soldiers at all thrilling. In real life my most thrilling moments were getting my own stupid butt out of an abandoned national park after getting stuck in the snow, not drowning on my honeymoon, and running away from home. None of these events required much in the way of equipment…

    how about you? How do your real-life thrills stack up against fiction?

    1. Mysti,

      Hadn’t thought of that, but men and women probably DO define thriller from different angles, with different interpretations. And it’s difficult to rank what they write (and read) with the same criteria. Not sure there is a right answer though. Men and women are different, but if there were rankings denoting men’s thrillers and women’s thrillers, the public and the authors would have a fit!

    2. I have gravitated toward different kinds of books at different times in my life. It took me a long time to land on crime fiction and thriller. But when I did, I knew I was home. That’s probably true of most readers/writers.

      Many many years ago a robber broke into my husband’s and my house in the middle of the night and held a gun to our heads. We managed to scare him off by using the old “I smell smoke” saw. Talk about terror. The first few minutes were consumed with “Is he going to shoot me?” Then, as time went on (he started tying us up) I realized terror could only go on for so long. It lost its edge after a minute or two.

      We were so lucky to escape some really bad stuff. I tried to catalog all my feelings about it but they were elusive. I believe it did start me on the path to writing thrillers. And probably gave my writing a harder edge.

      1. I started to say “awesome”, Carson, but your experience was not. But it’s phenomenal fodder plus it served as a hard catalyst for you as a writer (and I’m sure as a person as well).

        For me, I was involved in a federal bribery investigation where I was the CI. We were unable to make the case and suddenly I had people against me for having gotten involved in it. I was stalked, threatened, and so on. That served as a catalyst for me. Of course I married the federal agent on the case, too. That helped as well. 🙂

        1. That must have been terrifying! Interesting that we both have had tangents with real life crime. Have you every written any of those experiences in to one of your books?

          In my case, I haven’t. At least not yet.

    3. I think this is a pretty good point. We all have different things that thrill as readers and writers and the two are not necessarily the same thing.

      I’ve been in law enforcement for nine years and could tell some thrilling stories of my real life experiences, but they wouldn’t necessarily resonate with every reader. I know some people who would find my most harrowing experience quaint in comparison and others who couldn’t even handle the story of some of my more mundane experiences.

      I think I come back to the point I made above. There’s a market for just about everything these days and “thriller” is a really broad category. Just looking at the diversity of writers in ITW is a clear example of how disparate our stories can be. That doesn’t make any of them bad, underrepresented, or any less valuable. Beauty is in the eye and mind of the reader.

      1. I agree. It is a very broad category. I find myself gravitating to certain authors, actually, more than the type of book. Generally I can tell in the first few pages if it’s going to be a ride I want to go on. They’re different from one another but reliable, and they all seem to have a lot of strength underlying their writing. The list is long but includes Robert Crais, James W. Hall, T. Jefferson Parker, J.A. Jance, Michael Connelly, Lisa Gardner, Stephen King (How’d HE get in here?), John Lescroart, Randy Wayne White, Jonathan Kellerman, C.J. Box (he’s really reliable!), James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Jeffery Deaver, and Andrew Klavan. I know it when I read it. Thrillers? Police Procedurals? Whatever, they have to have that ^ kind of quality.

        1. A lot of those names are on my shelf, too. “That kind of quality” is true. I’m not against putting down a book after 50 pages, either. I’m a mystery/thriller genre gal, and the minute something gravitates to literary fiction, my eyes glaze over. My only exception of Pat Conroy, which is more Southern fiction than pure literary, because sense of place is important in all my books, and I want to learn how to capture it more intensely with each story I wrote.

          1. You give it as many as 50 pages? You are so kind! Generally, if they don’t snag me in the first chapter or two, I’m gone. I don’t blame them, I don’t go and write a 1 star review on Amazon, but I just realize the book is not for me.

            PS, just started Connelly’s new Harry Bosch and already I can’t put it down.

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