October 14 – 20: “What features of a thriller by an unknown author would make you want to read it?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Marietta Miles, James R. Hannibal, Alex Lettau and Mark Atley are talking about unknowns, such as unknown authors: What features of a thriller by an unknown author would make you want to read it? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss this!


Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, Marietta Miles currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children. Her 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 a contributor to Do Some Damage Writer’s Blog.


As a former stealth pilot, James R. Hannibal is no stranger to secrets and adventure. He has been shot at, locked up with surface to air missiles, and chased by an armed terrorist. He is a two-time Silver Falchion award-winner for his children’s Section 13 mysteries and a Thriller Award nominee for his Nick Baron covert ops series. His first Clandestine Service thriller, the Grypyhon Heist, is out now from Revell.


Black Rose Writing published Mark Atley’s debut novel, THE OLYMPIAN, at the end of June 2019. His short story “Amber Alert” won Honorable Mention in a local contest. Recently, Ink and Sword Magazine (Twitter) featured Mark in their December 2018 Crime Issue. Mark holds two degrees in journalism and works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK. He has overcome learning disabilities and struggled with dyslexia.


Alex Lettau is the pen name of Ludwig Alexander Lettau MD, a former medical epidemiologist with the CDC and current infectious disease specialist based in Charleston SC where he writes infection-related medical thrillers. In his Indie award-winning debut novel Yellow Death, the protagonist Kris Jensen, infected with an unknown lethal hepatitis virus, has only five days left to find answers to its origin. She survives to become a series protagonist! Look for Night Plague coming in 2020 in which a virus that causes insomnia triggers widespread violence in a Southern town. Kris Jensen races to solve the epidemic before it spreads nationwide.


  1. The question here is essentially what are my personal indicators of quality that make reading a thriller by an author unknown to me, worth my time and money.

    The first and quickest indicator is a strong recommendation by someone (whom I know and trust) who has actually read the work.

    Next indicator is the publisher. Publication by one of the bigger houses ensures quality of editing and selectivity of thrillers deemed likely to be a commercial success. Publication by small houses, hybrid publishers, or self-publication doesn’t rule out quality but it means you have to winnow more to separate wheat from poorly written, unedited, schlocky chaff.

    I also look to see if the author has some qualifications for his/her sub-genre of thriller. This applies particularly to medical, legal, espionage, and military techno-thrillers. If they haven’t been there and done it, it’s much harder to pull off in a convincing fashion. The majority of the readership might miss the mistakes but the sub-genre will attract readers who know better and who will skewer the work. Of course expertise doesn’t mean the author knows how to tell a story. This may be especially true of doctors. Would it have helped or hindered me to use the pen name Alex Lettau, M.D.? I’m not sure. I decided against it.

    If the unknown author has written multiple thrillers, it is somewhat of a plus as authors get better with practice. But then again quantity doesn’t ensure quality either. What about the claim of xxx-Best-Selling Author which usually gets displayed on the cover page? If it’s an author unknown to me, I’m not influenced by it. Maybe the author got on some list transiently in conjunction with a cut-priced deal to readers.

    What about endorsement blurbs from well-known thriller authors? My cynical view is such that those are almost all publisher-driven and decided, to the point that I’m skeptical whether the blurbers actually read the novel in some cases. I don’t understand why a well-known author would risk their credibility in doing so.

    I do look at reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. The reality is that I think I learn more from bad reviews than from good ones. The bad reviews have to explain the reason, however. Mention of poor editing, excessive clichés and typos scream sloppy work and I’ll stop considering that thriller. The dichotomy of written reviews can be amazing. I know of one novel about serial murders about which the positive reviews touted the author as the next Dashiell Hammett. Another reviewer blasted it as cliché-ridden garbage and that “I wouldn’t wipe my arse with this book!” I read the sample pages posted on Amazon and it was indeed awful.

    I personally am not influenced much by paid-for critical reviews (Kirkus, Bestthriller.com) as the author can opt out of publicizing negative reviews and the excerpt we see may be the only positive thing said in the review. I did do Bestthriller.com and they published a very positive review of “Yellow Death” in its entirety on their website. Did it bump sales? Maybe a little bit.

    Finally, what about awards? “Yellow Death” won several Indie-publishing awards. It’s hard to say how meaningful they are because I don’t know the denominator number of submissions in the medical thriller category. I have to say I read the prior year’s Best Medical Thriller winner of the “National Indie Excellence Awards” and was not impressed. ITW’s awards and the author interviews published in “The Big Thrill” have credibility and have influenced me several times to read a new (to me)thriller author.

    1. I agree with a great many things you said here (and I had to adjust my own comments to avoid repeating you). But I wish I could assuage some of your cynicism regarding blurbs. I think they are important. And I do, personally, consider them before I lift a book from a bookstore shelf.

      At the three major publishers I’ve worked with over the course of ten books and a full decade, it has fallen on me, the author, to go out and get bestsellers to read my work. Never has Penguin or Simon & Schuster sent my manuscripts to a big name for a cookie-cutter blurb. And those authors who’ve been kind enough to respond to my queries have read the full MS and often discussed it with me in either personal or email sidebars (Steven James, Clive Cussler, Steve Berry, Ted Bell, Lynette Eason, DiAnn Mills, etc.).

      Now that I’m at the point in my career where my own blurbs are appearing on covers, I try to emulate these kind authors who sacrificed their time for me. I know that there are probably some blurbs out there created by busy bestsellers who didn’t read a word. But I haven’t run into that in my own experience, and I stand behind every book I’ve endorsed. As you say, I wouldn’t risk my credibility otherwise.

  2. For an unknown author, I’d need to know the thriller has a great premise and a fantastic speed of narrative. I want my thrillers to move, be realistic, and have a point, with characters I care about and a story that makes logical sense. If there’s great dialogue that’s a plus. I read the reviews to determine this and I love reading the “bad” reviews of novels, because they give a great indication if the novel is truly bad or the reviewer didn’t understand. I don’t care for paid reviews, but I do enjoy reading how fellow authors felt about the thriller. Lastly, the unknown author needs to write with a unique voice. I want to read someone that crafts sentences in a unique and readable way.

    What turns me off about most thrillers are large body counts and wooden dialogue. It ends up reading unrealistic and can really ruin a story. Recently, I’ve put down several well-known authors for this very reason. Another turn off, is the author displaying the amount of research he/she has done by going into extreme detail about certain specifics for no reason. If it serves the story great, but if it’s a play-by-play on how things are done or the proper procedure or whatever it really slows the story down to the point of being unreadable.

    As for the unknown author, I don’t need to know anything about her/him. I don’t want to know anything about him/her. It’s great when the author has some credentials for writing in the field he/she is writing, but not necessary to me if the story is good enough. The joy of discovering a new author is discovering a new author, going in cold and loving what she/he has done and wanting more from them.

    1. I have looked at thrillers with a great premise but that didn’t deliver a good story. I personally can’t get enough out of reviews to be sure about the writing, pacing, plotting, author voice, etc. It would be nice to know which of the reviewers are authors themselves!
      What about the sample pages that are sometimes available on Amazon? Is the sample enough for you proceed with a purchase of the book?
      I agree with you that a good story will make the author’s credentials irrelevant but it takes a lot of research and help from others with the expertise to make it realistic.

      1. Yes, the sample pages are great, but with my process I will admit, sometimes there are duds. But I use the Library more than anything for finding new voices. That way, I’m not out the money. I have a great library system and take advantage of it.

  3. I love an underdog. Frodo Baggins. Daniel Larusso. The Losers Club. John McClane, Rudy, or Samantha Baker.
    When the one that no one considered could win actually wins – the shock makes it that much more impactful. By bringing in the plight of an underdog character you heighten the sense of accomplishment when or if it works out in their favor. They seem to have worked harder for the win and they seem more worthy, as failure has a way of seasoning and humbling us. It also makes failure palpable. You want them to swoop in and defeat the bad guy or figure out whodunnit so badly, you are crushed when it fails. Big emotions.
    Also, I believe most people identify with underdogs. I don’t think there are many people who consider themselves to be the main, heroic character.

  4. The first page.

    Hands down, for me, the answer to “what makes you want to read a thriller by an unknown author?” is a good first page.

    I wouldn’t say that I am OCD, but I have a few idiosyncrasies that result from my synesthesia. These come off as OCD. One is in the way I treat a new book. I love the combination of feel, sound, and smell that comes with opening a brand new book for the first time. Do you know it? That gentle cracking sound. With my synesthesia, it comes with a visible touch of gold, like opening a treasure chest. I don’t know if anyone else puts as much importance on this moment, but I’d hate to deny them that chance to experience it. So if you see me in the bookstore, peering through a barely open cover to read the first page, that’s why.

    So, the first page, which I read in the bookstore aisle amid all that careful effort to not spoil a new binding, must grab me. If the first line includes the word “was,” I’ll put the book right back on the shelf. This is a thriller. Line one must be dynamic, and I want an author who went through the effort to meet that well-known standard of our craft.

    Past line one, I want to see character, stakes, and a variety of color. Color is so important. Let me explain. Again, my synesthesia comes into play. Words have color that I can’t control and which never change. Filler words like would, has, was, etc. all have a light red or green color. They have their place, but if they dominate the page, the uniformity of color stands out, and I’ll shut the book.

    Dialogue. A first page with no dialogue will probably lose me. How do I know if an author’s any good if I can’t sample the dialogue? Dialogue brings out character, and dialogue on the first page must read quick, create tension, and show mood.

    Action. I’m not talking about bullets flying and explosions. I’m talking about movement, giving dimension and physicality to the story from the beginning. This movement must give me a sense of the stakes—maybe not the stakes for the whole story, but something in the same vein.

    Setting. I don’t want the author to go into great detail describing the setting, but I want to see it anyway. This is a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-to piece of the writing puzzle that I think editors and readers alike seek in their thriller fiction. You don’t have time in those first moments with a reader to waste words on rote description. However, when an author works a vivid setting into the action and dialogue of the first page, he or she has me hooked.

  5. I confess I had to look up “synesthesia”. I also went back to look at my first page and and counted about 6 uses of was/were in my description of a drug user who had died of fulminant liver failure. But then there are also tension and dialogue on the initial page.
    The first page hook is a critical element but it’s not generally available to read when considering a thriller by an unknown author unless you’re browsing in the library or a bookstore, or sample pages are available on Amazon.

    1. Good point. After I wrote that, I considered the digital reader. I think sample pages are super important. Berkley (Penguin) didn’t put them up for me when the Nick Baron series came out, so I’d put them up on Goodreads and such.

      I should clarify that was/were and others are necessary at times. Without them, the narrative loses some of the syncopation of its rhythm. I just like to limit them because of my own pseudo-OCD hang ups. 🙂

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