January 22 – 28: “What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of thriller authors?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of thriller authors? Join ITW Members Tim Waggoner, Susan Furlong, Marietta Miles, Thomas Perry, Micki Browning, Dana King and Chris Malburg as they offer their sage advice to the next generation of thriller writers. Scroll down to the “comments” section and follow along!


Dana King has published eleven novels, two of which (A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window) received Shamus Award nominations. The newest novel in that series, Bad Samaritan, was released on January 22 by Down & Out Books. His Penns River series of police procedurals includes three books, with a fourth (Ten-Seven) due in July from Down & Out.


Chris Malburg is a popular author, with over 4 million words published in 22 business books. Simon & Schuster, Putnam, Wiley and McGraw Hill all publish Chris’ work which is consumed in most western countries. After classes at Stanford Writers School, Chris crossed the chasm into fiction with his Enforcement Division series. Chris’ latest, Man of Honor, is a thriller about the storied Chinese PLA Unit 61398—the cyber warfare division.


An FBI National Academy graduate, Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades, retiring as a division commander. Now a full-time writer, she won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for her debut mystery, ADRIFT. Micki also writes short stories and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks. She resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research.”


Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s twice had stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.


Susan Furlong was introduced to the American Irish Traveller community when a family of Travellers worked on her home. After extensive research, her fascination with this itinerant subculture became the basis for her new suspense series. Susan contributes to the New York Times bestselling Novel Idea Mysteries, under the pen name Lucy Arlington, and is the author of other mysteries as well. Raised in North Dakota, she graduated from Montana State University. She and her family live in central Illinois.


Marietta Miles’ shorts and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark and contributor to Do Some Damage Writer’s Blog. Her first book, ROUTE 12, was released February of 2016. Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, she currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children.


Thomas Perry is the bestselling author of 25 novels, including the critically acclaimed Jane Whitefield series, Forty Thieves, The Old Man and The Butcher’s Boy, which won the Edgar Award.



  1. ITW has thousands thriller authors at all levels. For the next gen writers—those now embarking on their writing careers—I would respectfully advise getting some education in the craft. This is a complex business and deserves some respect if you’re serious about succeeding. Writer’s School may not be the best beginning. Entry is competitive and it’s a huge time commitment for something that may not be for you. So I’d suggest first reading some of the industry publications. Writers Digest magazine is one I’ve read as well as written for. Poets and Writers as well as The Writer are also good craft publications for prospective writers.
    I would also recommend visiting some of the websites. One of my favorites is Michelle Richmond’s, The Caffeinated Writer (https://medium.com/a-writers-life). Michelle was one of my creative writing professors at Stanford Writers School Online. She’s thorough, patient, down to earth, and an expert in the craft.
    Also, to me, there’s no better education than learning from the best writers. Many write craft books. After 22 books of nonfiction as well as four thrillers I still start each new project by re-reading John Turby’s, Anatomy of Story. It’s a step-by-step guide to assembling a novel. Stephen King’s, On Writing—a Memoir of the Craft tells it like it is as only King can.
    I could go on but know you have other things to do. So lastly, when you write, pick a topic that absolutely fascinates you. Toyota Motor Corp. is a client of mine. I was there when their cars were accelerating out of control. I wondered, what if this isn’t accidental. Deadly Acceleration was born. I’ve had a life-long interest in Vatican Bank—the world’s most corrupt financial institution. I wondered how exposed it was to take-over by religious extremists. I [and my readers] found out in God’s Banker. I was taking the aircraft accident investigation curriculum at USC’s School of Engineering. My classmates belonged to the NTSB, FAA, CIA, and FBI. I learned how to determine the cause of an air disaster. From that came my latest, Man of Honor, a cyber warfare thriller that employs crashing airliners as the weapon of choice.
    Best of luck with your writing,
    Chris Malburg

    1. Chris touches on a point here I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t mention myself. Along with knowing your craft, a writers needs to know the canon. Know about the masters who came before you, what they did, and how it influences your work even if you don’t think it does. It’s easy for a young writer to think, “He wrote 70 years ago. I’m writing NOW,” and not realize their favorites, those they readily acknowledge influenced them, were themselves influenced by the likes of Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean. All of us–even the current greats–stand on the shoulder of those who came before us. Not to understand that–and take advantage of the benefits of that knowledge–is to take a great risk.

  2. The readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief is critical in any fiction. In a thriller it’s particularly important to meet your audience halfway. Books aren’t like movies where the director can move the action along so quickly the audience doesn’t have a chance to think too much about why a character does something. If you have a nifty plot twist you’re dying to use, prepare it properly. Few things will turn off a reader faster than a development that requires a character to do something no one in their right mind would do. Take the time to either come up with a plot point that requires the characters’ choice to make sense (for that character), or come up with some credible outside influences that limit the characters’ options, or find a more believable twist. Remember, it’s a book. Readers have more time to think about what just happened and may well flip back to see if something makes sense.

    1. Absolutely agree and it applies across the board. Author convenience is so obvious when it happens–the conveniently overheard conversation, the dropped letter, the arrival of the wronged person when two people are having an affair, the misunderstanding where someone storms off, the wandering about in the dark to investigate a noise, wide open curtains when two people are having a clandestine meeting right next to a window. That last drives me nuts when I see it in movies.

      1. Thanks, Elisabeth and Chris. My personnel pet peeve along those lines is when the protagonist in a “person in over their head” story–say a young husband and wife have found half a million dollars of mob money and it doesn’t occur to them right away someone will come looking for it (which I’m OK with so far) keeps presenting the couple with choices and they consistently choose the one things everyone knows is the LAST thing they should do, just to keep the pace going. After a while I start to root for the bad guys. (These people are too stupid to live.)

    2. Sage advice from one of the masters. Writers sometimes get lazy and allow their characters to do things outside themselves for the sake of turning story. It diminishes credibility. Most writers are also readers. I am. I’m impatient with books where I end up knowing more about the characters’ core competencies and psyche than does the author. I think to myself that this writer is probably not someone who’ll teach me much.

  3. The best single piece of advice I can give the next generation of thriller writers is to resist the pressure to imitate current and past writers too closely. It is educational to study the works of previous generations, but it is a waste of your life to try to reproduce them. Nobody needs you to write more Raymond Chandler books. The originals are enough. Be the best writer that your own education and experience enable you to be. Read everything and write as often and as thoughtfully as you can, even when you believe nobody will ever read your words. Try to make each day’s work better than the last by attempting to do something new. Never write a scene that you have ever read or watched before. If anybody remembers your name after you’re gone, it will be for the things you wrote that were original, that would never have been written if you hadn’t lived. Make a contribution, not just a product.

    1. This is great advice.

      I will copy intriguing passages I encounter in novels, and then rewrite them in my own voice. The two pieces may share a cadence, or a sentence structure, but the voices (and often the subject matter) are unique. It is a great exercise.

      We can certainly learn from the greats, but trying to BE someone we are not ends up stifling creativity rather than inspiring it.

  4. Hi Everyone,
    The best writing advice I ever received was to plot from the point of view of the antagonist and write from the perspective of the protagonist. As a retired police captain, you’d think this bit of advice would have been obvious to me. Sadly, no. I muddled through two manuscripts before I realized I needed to stop thinking like an officer and start thinking like a crook.

    Most new writers put a great deal of thought into the character development of their heroes, but they tend to give their antagonist short shrift. But think about it—the antagonist is the character that drives the story. It is his or her actions that the protagonist must address. If the author doesn’t know the sequence of events the antagonist followed, it is difficult to create a causal narrative where each scene and chapter builds on the prior information. Instead, the chapters become episodic. The plot will unravel—but not in a good way.

    1. “plot from the point of view of the antagonist and write from the perspective of the protagonist”

      Outstanding idea. I’m stealing–er, I mean borrowing–that one for my next book.

  5. Good morning,
    Unless you’re my child I am uncomfortable giving advice. However, I will pass on something Rob Pierce, author of VERN IN THE HEAT and UNCLE DUST and editor for Out of the Gutter and All Due Respect Books, once wrote to me after my first novella was published.

    “Don’t listen to anybody.”

    Yes! What I’ve been doing all my life might finally work out.

    I took it to mean I should stay true to my way of storytelling. Don’t get caught up in how other people write or what other people think you should write. A great story can only be told if it is sincere and when you try to emulate someone else, all sincerity is lost.

  6. I agree with both Marietta and Thomas: Be your own writer and not someone else who already earned their slot on the best seller list. This is a business where everyone thinks they know something but nobody really knows anything. Both agents and editors are in constant search for a parade to jump in front of and lead. Write what you want, how you want it, using your own original characters. There are so many publications out there for you to choose from but only one of you. The publishing community needs us far more than we need them.

  7. The key to a good story is to write authentic characters. Take time to know your characters’ backstories and what makes them tick, and then allow them to develop and evolve realistically through the story. A great plot won’t hold up without solid characters to support it.

    1. Technology and gadgets in thrillers can take the plot only so far. Then the characters must–absolutely must–take over. Without credible, engaging characters no plot moves very far. Whether our readers love, hate, or fear a character they feel something for them. It’s that feeling that keeps everyone wondering what’s going to happen to the characters. And the keeps the pages turning. I get to know my characters by writing extensive bios for them. Then they take over.

      1. I realized this a while after I started to get serious about writing, but before I got any good at it. What got me was thinking back to books I’d read 10 or 20 years ago or more. I might remember the basic plots and some hazy outlines of events, but if i really liked the book I could name the main characters right off the top of my head. I didn’t realize it at the time but they were what stuck with me.

        1. Dana put into words what I’ve thot but didn’t voice for so long. I can gauge my level of interest in a book (or movie, or TV show) by whether I can remember the character’s names. No name, not interest.

  8. The advice I’d give the next generation of thriller writers is the same as I’d give any writer: make sure there’s an emotional core at the heart of your story. Writers — especially novelists — are so concerned with tending to the nuts and bolts of their plots that they forget to remember that what ultimately draws readers to stories, and what makes stories memorable for readers, is their emotional core. The plot of MOBY DICK may revolve around the hunt for the Great White Whale, but it’s Ahab’s all-consuming desire for revenge — and its effect on his crew — that gives the story its dark heart. If you’re writing a series character, he or she might not change significantly by the end of the story, but you can give them an emotional core for each story. One story might find the character dealing with loss, another with the limitations of their ability to make things right, etc. You can also make the emotional core focused on a secondary character, someone the hero interacts with, tries to save, etc. The main character can then become involved in, and affected by, that character’s emotional core.

    1. Good point, Tim, about the emotional core and how it may not perfectly line up with the overt elements of the story. I read an article years ago that compared THE FRENCH CONNECTION and DIRTY HARRY and their lead characters. While they may seem to be doing similar things on the surface, Dirty Harry is portrayed as a single-minded man doing a dirty job while Popeye Doyle is a borderline psycho.

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