February 12 – 18: “How do you start writing your novel?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Alex Shaw, Chris Malburg, Brendan Duffy, DiAnn Mills, Thomas Pluck and J. H. Bográn and we’re discussing what comes first. How do you start writing your novel? Start by scrolling down to the “comments” section and reading what they have to say!


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. FIREWALL, the first book in her Houston: FBI series, was listed by Library Journal as one of the best Christian Fiction books of 2014.


Chris Malburg is a widely published author, with over 4 million words published in 22 popular business books and four novels. 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 began the fun side of his career. He has crossed the chasm into fiction with the fourth installment in his Enforcement Division series. Chris is known for his meticulous research of the material presented in his books. MAN OF HONOR is an example. While preparing this book, Chris took the same aircraft accident investigation courses at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering that the NTSB and FAA accident investigators take.


Alex Shaw is an active member of the ITW (The International Thriller Writers organisation) and the CWA (the Crime Writers Association). He is the author of the #1 International Kindle Bestselling ‘Aidan Snow SAS thrillers’ COLD BLOOD, COLD BLACK, COLD EAST and the new DELTA FORCE VAMPIRE series of books. His writing has also been published in the thriller anthologies DEATH TOLL, DEATH TOLL 2 and ACTION PULSE POUNDING TALES 2 alongside International Bestselling authors Stephen Leather and Matt Hilton.


Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and the upcoming story collection Life During Wartime, both from Down & Out Books. Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”


Brendan Duffy is an editor and the author of THE STORM KING and HOUSE OF ECHOES. In 2015, he was featured in Refinery29’s “21 New Authors You Need to Know.” He lives in New York, where he is at work on his next novel.



J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. POISONED TEARS is his third novel in English and has already garnered positive reviews and recommendations. Jon Land calls it “a splendid piece of crime noir.” Douglas Preston says it’s a first class roller-coaster ride. His other works include novels in both English and Spanish, short stories, screenplays. He’s a member of The Crime Writers Association, the Short Fiction Writers Guild, and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator.


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  1. Generally, I’ve had an idea in my head for a while before I sit down to start a new novel. I keep a notebook of ideas, phrases, and potential titles, and one of these is the seed that geminates into a new book. In the case of my most recent novel, this was an image that got lodged in my head: a boy wandering alone on a dilapidated pier that seemed to belong to another time. What had happened to this boy? What had happened to this pier? These questions and the strong sense of place that I got from this image were the initial pieces to the puzzle I began to work out on the page.

    On the plotter/pantser spectrum I’m firmly on the side of the pantsers. This makes my writing process a bit messy, and I’ve discovered that each book seems to be messy in its own unique way. For The Storm King, it took me about 50k words before I got a good sense of the characters, driving themes, and meat of the story. In the end, about 90% of these words got cut, but it was the groundwork necessary to get the book where it needed to go. In contrast, for the project I’m currently working on, I spent several months fine-tuning the first ten pages in order to get the voice and narrator firmly situated in my mind. This may sound extreme, but since this book is in first person, this feels like time well spent.

    So, I think it’s okay (preferable, even) to begin a book without a firm idea of what’s going to happen in it or how it’s going to end. I give myself time to get acquainted with the characters rather than immediately force the plot into the beats leading to its conclusion. Even once I’m pretty sure where the narrative’s going, I try to keep my mind open to more interesting possibilities. As Stephen King has said, it’s okay to aim, “but not too hard.” The challenge of finding my way through a novel is a big part of what keeps me engaged while writing it.

    1. I love that Brendan gives his work time to percolate around in his head. That’s high praise from one thriller writer to another. It truly helps the creative process for me as well as I sit in Melbourne airport awaiting my flight to Los Angeles and home. An open mind is one where characters and plot movement are free to come and go. Every so often I’ll snag one that’s a surprise–even as I sit there staring at my outline, wondering what’s next. Well said, Brendan.

      1. Thank you, Chris! It’s certainly great to be surprised by your own characters. Even if they lead you down the occasional blind alley, you always come away having learned something that you didn’t know before. I think all the work you pour into a book pays off in one way or another.

  2. I am a daydreamer, and my novels usually begin years before I write them, as ideas or daydreams I throw around in my head while I’m out on a walk or a hike, or driving. It takes a while to develop in there, and scenes get polished in the rock tumbler of my brain, and the ones that stick get used in the eventual book. When the book grabs me, I start writing it. By then I have an opening scene, or enough inciting scenes to inspire a good opener, and I let it flow from there. I outline vaguely with post-its and a whiteboard, to set up milestones on the way, but I enjoy figuring out how to get there.

  3. I start writing my novels in my head. An idea will materialise in my mind, like a ship emerging from a heavy fog. I may, or may not know its name, some of its crew and its final destination. Sometimes I have no clue which port the ship set sail from and on other occasions, the idea may have come directly from current affairs, something I’ve seen, overhead or personal experience.

    Lines and scenes will appear in my mind and I then make a list of about ten bullet points and see what I’ve got. This leads on to new or extended ideas.

    I don’t generally outline much more than my bullet points but I do extend these to perhaps eighty or so, each one being a scene but usually only after I’ve written the scene. I don’t tend to write in chapters, they only appear at the end when I’ve decided where they should go.

    I like to write on location whenever possible, this entails me travelling to the place where a scene takes place and writing there and then. It’s amazing what one notices once one starts to write, details that otherwise would be missed.

  4. Posted on behalf of author Chris Malburg:

    Now that my latest cyber warfare thriller, Man of Honor , is on the market I’ve already moved on to my next project. How did I start? There’s no magic formula. They taught me in writers’ school to begin by writing—capture the story. Don’t worry about logic or order, or characters. Just get the story down. I like this method. But I add a few preliminary steps. Even though my four thrillers feature terror-based conspiracies on a global scale, they’re actually character driven. I begin by getting to know my characters. Barbara Williams, is the main character in my upcoming, Barbara Anne’s Slider. Songs inspired two of my books. So it seems is Slider. The song is Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys. The happy, summery, bouncy pace of this song epitomizes Barbara. It sets the tone of the book. I hear it often.
    My next step is getting to know my character. I want her history, her background, her family, successes, failures (especially her failures), I want to know her dreams and most importantly the flaws that make her human and relate-able. With this bio I can now predict her logical behavior in the variety of situations that she’ll face throughout the book.
    Now I’m ready for story capture. I like organization; work best with some sort of structure. So I identify the main scenes in the story. I put them down in outline form. With the scenes identified I can place them in the proper sequence that best tells the story. From the scenes comes the rest of the cast of characters. I create them as needed to move the story forward. For major characters I’ll write their bio so I know them and how they’ll logically behave in different situations. The supporting cast gets a few tells in their character so readers will know them and place them in the scene.
    It’s decision time. I look at different points of view—usually first person vs. third person. Maybe I’ll write a few scenes both ways before making a decision. Who is telling this story and from what point of view is one of my biggest decisions. In Slider the story is about Barbara but it’s being told in the first person by someone else who is close enough and so deeply involved with her that he provides credible narrative. Readers will deeply connect with the narrator and they’ll grow to love Barbara.
    Now I begin writing the scenes. This is the creative part. It goes fast because I’m not worrying about literary perfection—just filling in the scenes.
    So that’s how I start a thriller. For me it’s logical, organized, and ensures I don’t waste time wondering down a wrong road that ultimately winds up on the cutting room floor. My professors insisted that writing is art and it’s damned inefficient. Nonsense. Time is precious. My goal is to be the most efficient writer I can be—one who meets his deadlines on time and on budget. For me, that’s the only way I can approach the craft.

  5. Like others, my story starts in my head. I toss scenarios until the idea won’t leave me alone. To start the writing process, I first dive into a pre-writing process. I’m a character-driven, organic writer. Everything is birthed in character. To me, outlining spoils the creative adventure.
    1. Choose the what-if question. What is the one driving question that will follow my hero and heroine throughout the story?
    2. What type of hero and heroine would have the highest stakes—the most to lose if the goal/objective failed, and the most to gain if successful?
    3. What type of antagonist fits the what-if scenario and the hero/heroines temperament, needs, goals, etc?
    4. Research all those things that involve my characters and story. Sometimes that means a trip, interviews, and whatever it takes.
    5. Complete a lengthy character sketch that includes backstory.
    6. Take a deep breath and begin the story.

    1. I pretty much follow your model. Except for the research. Since my outlines are very loose, I don’t know what I´ll need to research from the get-go. Major things like location, yes. I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans twice before I wrote Poisoned Tears.

  6. How you start writing your novel?

    For me, with mix of dread and excitement. The percentage of each element remains debatable and would shift depending on the time of day you ask me.

    On January 15 of 2018 I began to write a new novel. The excitement part came due to the fact that for the first time lapse between projects was mere weeks instead of months. The previous November had seen the end of my previous project’s first draft.

    The component of dread came from working on a collaborative novel. I’m working with British author Steven Savile. I’ll be using his characters, his settings against my story arc and writing quirks.
    It was set to start on January 02, but the dread stopped me. Steven and I bounced emails finalizing the outline. Then, it was on me to start. Nobody but me. I alone had the make the decision when to jump off that particular literary cliff.

    Almost a month, and 15 words later, I’m happy I did.

    So, how do you start? I start by overcoming the terror and letting the excitement take over.

    1. I have no dread just excitement about my new story idea and where it will take me. I’m a pantser but do a bit of forward plotting when the story begins to take shape.

      One thing I do like is to have the title early on. I find it serves as an anchor for the theme. It can bring me back on track when I stray.

      1. I usually have a working title. For my last two published novels, my editor suggested a title change. It took my mind a while to process the change.
        What I do use for anchor is an outline, it avoids writing myself into a corner.

      2. Elisabeth, love the excitement for a new novel! We write with a similar pattern.

        Like you, I must have a working title. Who wants to wake up every morning to, “Yes, I get to work on Novel XX.”

        1. Diann and Chris– Since childhood I’ve always had a similar tingle of excitement when I go into a library–all those stories waiting in there for me to explore, new worlds, new people. Now it’s my new story…who are these people and what’s going to happen to them?

        2. Diann, like you I never discount the value of a catchy title. I sold my very first book, How To Fire Your Boss, pretty much on just the title and an outline. Turns out that after 26 books, that was the only title of mine the New York publishers kept in their infinite wisdom. Doesn’t stop me from suggesting titles, tho. And on each one I’m always optimistic that mine is the one that’ll stick.

    2. Like Elizabeth, for me there’s no dread in starting a new project. In fact, I usually can’t wait to get going. My next project, Barbara Anne’s Slider, began coming to me in one of my cycling workouts. It came so fast–the characters, scenes, obstacles–that I had to stop and make notes into my iPhone. I stopped 8 times during my 20 mile ride. Barbara wouldn’t wait for me to outline the book either. This time I’m writing the scenes as they burst from my subconscious. What fun this makes the writing process. Now the hard part–making the scenes make sense in a logical sequence. And even harder, tossing those that don’t.

  7. It’s taken me a long time to learn that I feel better when I write, even if it’s a grueling session of edits, than when I shirk it. It’s as good as a full night’s sleep, for me. So I try to remember that when I feel myself making excuses not to write. Last night I cleaned the stove before writing. That’s a good sign I’m making excuses!

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