Wednesday, November 18, 2020

HOW TO WRITE A THRILLER IN 8 EASY STEPS

by Jenny Milchman

OK, maybe not so easy. But I realized that we find so many amazing thriller and suspense titles on Rogue Women Writers—from a handful of just the most recent posts there are books by Wolf Bahren, Kate Flora, Barbara Ross, Richard Cass, Lisa Jewell, Gerry Boyle, and James Swallow—that it raises a question.

How do all these exciting, thrilling books come to be?

Using the lens of my own eleven-year, rejection filled writing journey (that’s me, surrounded by actual snail mail no’s), I thought I’d share some tips, strategies, and ideas from the long road between sitting down to write a book and seeing it on shelves or web pages. Hopefully emerging writers out there will learn something—or at least find a little fuel for their travels and travails—while thriller fans will gain insight into some of the behind-the-scenes action in the exciting world of their favorite books.

1. Where do writers get ideas? Every author has been asked this. The answers are as varied as the writers themselves. Inspiration can arise from a news story, a personal memory, or a what-would-happen-if scenario. For thrillers in particular, I like the approach of taking a normal, everyday situation, then twisting the knob until something goes horribly wrong. You’re standing in line at the supermarket and the person in front of you suddenly takes the clerk hostage. You’re picking your kid up at school—but all the doors are locked. For my first (never published) suspense novel, I was working as a psychologist-in-training when I got assigned the very scary case of a child who killed. I didn’t need to turn that one up to 11—it was already there!

2. How do writers start writing? One very basic dividing line between writers is whether you’re a Plotter (you plot out your story in advance, usually with an outline) or a Pantser (you write by the seat of your pants, letting the story winds carry you where they may). Of course, this division exists on a continuum; some may do a little bit of each while others may adhere far to either side. Outlines can range too. The great Jeffrey Deaver writes outlines as long as 100 pages or more—a good part of a book! Others like a scaffolding approach, such as the one Robert McKee describes in Story, where five high points form the skeleton of a story-to-be.

3. Ways to get the darn thing done. Some writers like to set word count goals—anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand per day. (Readers, that amounts to anywhere from one page to as many as ten or more). Other writers build their schedule around time—they write for anywhere from one hour to eight (five seems to be a sweet spot among authors; after that the creative bones start to sag). Writers who have a day job or young children must fit the writing in among other demands. But basically, when trying to finish a book, one or both of these approaches will not fail you. A) Sheer inspiration—you’re so excited to see what happens next, you just can’t wait to write. You wind up surprised each day and your readers will too! B) BIC, which stands for Butt in Chair. One page per day gives you a finished book in a year. Get going!

4. Wait, but what do I do when I finish? Well, first take a page from Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery and come up with your own personal writerly celebration. If cigarettes and champagne don’t do ya, go for a night out, a walk, a swim, buy a box of doughnuts—could be anything, but make sure you signify this great accomplishment. Moments both small and large make us into, and make up our lives as, writers. Then…put the book in a drawer for at least two weeks, longer if you can stand it. Spoiler alert: I did not do either of these things, and I regret it.

5.  K, on it, what now? The single biggest mistake I would say I’ve made as a writer is not to realize the value of revision. I always have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. “But isn’t it good enooooough?” I moan. Well, no, it usually isn’t. It can almost always get better—stakes punched up; surprises more original versus the first ones we think of; characters carved deeper; that nice thriller arc forming a spike. Even before my agent or editor, I have learned to seek out trusty readers. If you are looking for some, in addition to the usual ideas, such as joining a writers group or relying on tough-but-honest friends and family, I recommend asking a book club to take your draft on as one of their selections. Book club members are close, insightful readers. You will learn which characters are loved and hated (hopefully the ones you intend to be!), whether your plot points are exciting or ho hum, and other elements of what makes a great read.  

6.  To be or not to be published traditionally. Most books in the thriller genre come from Big 5 publishers and three other established independents. There’s also a new(ish) way to publish in town and it’s called self-publishing. Deciding which path is right is one of the biggest decisions an emerging writer will make. I believe that this choice should be based on personality factors and a writer’s current situation versus one way being better than the other. For instance, how much control do you like to have? Are you on a tight timeline either because of events in your life, age, or something else? Answers to these and other questions will point you on your way.

7.  Traditional. I definitely want to be published traditionally. OK, great, then you need an agent. Which means you need a targeted agent list—peruse the acknowledgments in thrillers like the ones you find right here and on each monthly Rogue Reads lineup, in which writers often thank their agents; follow agents online—and a bang-up query letter. Write a pitch paragraph that reads a lot like the flap copy on a great thriller, and put it front and center in your query. Hook an agent like you’ll one day hook readers. I used this approach for my own querying and wound up with multiple offers of representation.

8.  My book just sold! OK, celebration time again. And then take a deep breath. Because as in the best thrillers, just when you think you’ve come to a plateau, gotten a little breathing room—there’s going to be a twist and yet more challenges ahead. But that’s okay. To paraphrase George Clooney in that greatest of thriller films, The Perfect Storm, you’re a gosh-darned thriller writer (or reader). Is there anything better in the world?

Readers, have you ever considered writing a thriller? Or, if you already have, which of these 8 tips can you vouch for?

6 comments:

  1. What a terrific - and inspiring - list of do's and don'ts for thriller writers. In crafting my own thrillers I have been inspired to write about national security threats to our nation - trying to "make the point" that these are threats I believe we should take seriously. I recall a great quote by George Bernard Saw who said. "The best way to get your point across is to entertain." And isn't that what writers are trying to do? Thanks for a great post...Karna Small Bodman

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  2. BIC. Love it! Great tips here, Jenny. Thanks!

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  3. I think you’ve hit all the steps!!

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  4. Valerie ConstantineNovember 18, 2020 at 4:50 PM

    Love this blog, Jenny. You've made it straightforward and simple, with a nice dollop of humor. The perfect recipe!

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  5. Thanks, everyone! And Karna, I think that's a great motivation to thrill.

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  6. Late to post. Blame it on the new grandson. BUT, love the post. I'm just starting my ninth book. I have the idea, I know where it's going, and I love all the tips you've laid out here. Never to late to perfect the technique of writing the thriller! Thanks.

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