Interview: Where to start your book? How to twist your plot?

This summer I was interviewed about Phantom Instinct and thriller writing by Keys to the Page. Here’s the interview in full.

1. I loved all the plot twists and turns in “Phantom Instinct.” Many of your thrillers have a breathtaking storyline. Do you outline your books prior to writing them or do you just write the story first?

I outline, because otherwise I find myself miles up the creek without a paddle, a canoe, or a path out. Before I start writing, I need to know the beginning and end of a story, and several big turning points along the way. That way I can work in twists, set-ups, payoffs, foreshadowing, character development, and make sure the story holds together as a whole. The seeds of a story’s ending need to be sown at its beginning.

2. The first few pages in Phantom Instinct instantly drew me in. Obviously, you start in the middle of the action. What further advice would you give to a future writer for when they start a book?

Figure out what the chase is, and cut to it. Start your story as close to the ending as possible.

3. I love how Phantom Instinct is broken up in separate scenes. It makes for a quick read. It’s almost cinematic. Did you choose to do this for pacing purposes? Why or why not?

A thriller has to thrill. That means the story has to move forward at all times. Tightly paced scenes help propel the narrative ahead. More than that, though, scenes bring the story most vividly to life—they show instead of tell. They make readers feel they’re in the midst of immediate action. That’s why scenes can seem cinematic—because readers can see and hear them happening as they read.

4. You do an amazing job in blurring the line between a plot driven story verses a character driven story. How do you make a person care about a character when you’re writing a plot driven book?

Plot is what the characters do. In a thriller, plot is about the choices the characters make when facing deadly threats, under increasing pressure, often with time running out. To get readers to care, I follow the advice given to me years ago by mystery writer Leonard Tourney: Create sympathetic characters and put them in jeopardy.

5. When you come up with a character do they come to you or do you draw images from people you know or have known?

I draw on human nature, people I see on the street or at the airport, and my deepest imagination. It takes a while for characters to come to life—I have to write about them, let them speak and run around and get in trouble, before I know who they really are.

6. The relationships between Harper, Aiden and Piper are so vivid. How did you create such believable relationships with the characters?

I’m a woman married to a man, so I have a head start on the girl/guy thing. As for Piper, I was once a seventeen-year-old myself.

Also, I rewrite until I get things right.

7. It’s interesting you give each character a flaw to hinder their ability. You give Aiden Fregoli Syndrome and you give Harper a criminal background. Do you do this so the characters have to struggle or do you do this because it makes for an interesting story?

Both. Unless the characters face a challenge, the story will be dull. In Phantom Instinct, the characters’ struggles complicate their desperate quest to catch a killer. Harper’s juvenile record leads the cops to mistrust her. Aiden’s Fregoli Syndrome, caused by a traumatic brain injury he suffers in the opening shootout, leaves him with a kind of face blindness that means he sees enemies everywhere. For a cop, that’s a nightmare. Unless Harper and Aiden can find a way to trust each other and work together, they’re doomed.

8. The concrete details you provide really create a strong visual image. The word choices you use are fantastic. How do you choose those specific words? Is it because of your legal background?

My background as a lawyer taught me to choose the right word. The rest is practice. Endless practice, trial and error, failure, and rewriting.

9. My favorite metaphor is: “the Pacific sparkled with firework brilliance.” How do you take something that could be cliché (like the sparkling Pacific) and give it a fresh twist?

If you’ve heard a phrase before—if it’s the first description that pops into your head—it’s almost certainly a cliché. Rewrite it.

10. What is the best advice you can give to a writer?

Sit your butt down at your desk, set your fingers on the keyboard, and write. Write until you finish what you started.

Saturday: Texas Book Festival


Tomorrow I’m speaking at the Texas Book Festival. Which is a big damn deal, y’all. I am stoked to have been invited. Details:

11:00 AM — 12:00 PM Saturday
Location: Capitol Extension Room E2.014
Mark Pryor
Jay Brandon
Meg Gardiner
Chris Mattix

From the Festival program:

Thrillers boast some of the best plot twists, cliff-hangers, and spy gadgets in literature. From assassinations to international security, what’s not to like about a little trickery and espionage? Join Mark Pryor, Meg Gardiner, and Jay Brandon as they discuss their tales of uncovering blood letters, preventing terrorist attacks, and even searching for a killer no one believes exists.

That last one would be my tale, Phantom Instinct. Come on down if you’re anywhere in the Lone Star State.

Reminder: Dripping Springs Library fundraiser on Sunday

This Sunday I’ll be speaking at a fundraiser for a good cause, the Dripping Springs Community Library. The event is open to everybody who’s willing to contribute. What’s not to like about literacy, books, wine, and music?

Pouring Over Books
Fundraiser for Dripping Springs Community Library
Sunday, October 19, 2014
4 – 6 PM
Triple Creek Ranch
Dripping Springs, Texas
Featuring: Wine tasting, and a talk about writing by yours truly.
Bonus: Music by the Hill Country Ramblers.

A few photos from Italy

I have returned to Austin from Tuscany, where I taught a crime writing workshop. While I sit on the kitchen floor eating coffee beans from the bag to recover from jet lag, have a few photos from Fivizzano and Pisa. And yes, when you’re on foot in a foreign city, it helps to spot a landmark. Right there: PIZZERIA.

I’m teaching fiction, but Fivizzano really exists


Buongiorno from Italy. The writing workshop I’m teaching is run here, at the Watermill at Posara. I’m tutoring students on story structure, plot twists, character development, suspense, dialogue, and, generally, how to create worlds out of whole cloth. When I told a friend I was offering this course in an Italian town called Fivizzano, she said, “You’re making that up.”

Nope. Here’s proof. Above: the town, with the Apennines rising behind it. Below: Posara, the little neighborhood where the Watermill perches above the river.


Yesterday before dinner I hiked up a winding mountain road to get these photos. Coming around a switchback, I spotted something unexpected: a wrecked blue Ford station wagon halfway down the ravine.


It looked empty, and nobody was moaning from the nearby trees. I quickly returned to the Watermill and asked if anybody had heard screeching brakes, or a crash, or sirens. Nobody had, anytime in the past few days. At the local pizzeria the night before, the fire brigade had been jovially enjoying dinner — they didn’t look like they’d been on any tough rescues. One of my students said she’d gone running up the ravine earlier in the week, and the car was there then. So I don’t know any more about the crash, or how long the car has been there.

It’s a mystery. Maybe I’ll try to integrate it into my writing course.

It’s a tough job


But you know what they say.

Austin-Houston-Munich-Pisa sounds like a relay team. It’s the route I took to get to the Watermill at Posara, near Fivizzano, Italy. And when the last leg of the journey takes you over the Alps, you don’t complain.


Now I’m getting ready to spend the week teaching a writing workshop, and helping the students rassle all their words into shape. Here’s the 17th century Italian setting where we’re going to work. Pity us.

Thank you notes from Dos Pueblos High School

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to the Creative Studies class at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. Dos Pueblos is where I went to high school, and the class is taught by Clark Sayre, who’s a long time friend of my family. I had a great time, and loved talking to the students about how I went from sitting in DP classrooms to seeing my novels shelved in the school library.

Afterward, I was touched that the class wrote me thank you notes.

From Emma Scigliano:

I never really understood what great lengths authors went to when writing their stories. It’s amazing how many times you rewrite a novel before publishing it!

It amazes me as well. But revision is a good thing.

From Chloe Housh:

It’s cool that you like Kurt Vonnegut and wrote a terrible romance novel in high school because those are things that my friends and I like.

You mean I would fit in at Dos Pueblos today? Fantastic.

From Brandon Gonzalez:

I have one question that I hadn’t asked though. Will you ever write an autobiography?

If I do, it will feature the epic morning I returned to DP and the Creative Studies class schooled me on the source of the quote, “The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

From Yasmine Kadhim:

You have shown me that it is not the end of the world if I don’t have a completed novel yet.

Yasmine, I love your drive and passion. But cool those jets, girl! Writing novels takes time and study and practice, and high school is just the first step on the road to becoming a writer.

From Olivia Merritt:

I’m glad you accomplished your dream and do what you love. I, myself, like horror and gory stuff. Although I don’t write much I draw a lot. I have some good book ideas, but just can’t think of a good plot.

Don’t worry, Olivia. When I was in high school I couldn’t think of a good plot either. I have notebooks full of awful stories to prove it. Learning how to think of plots takes time, and experience.

From Erika Cruz:

When you were telling the writers 101 basics of the Protagonist and Antagonist, it helped me grasp the concept in dance. [...] Your advice really helped me think of switching it up, creating my own flare on dance.

I’m so excited to hear this. Storytelling crosses genres and disciplines. It’s inherent in all forms of human creative expression.

From Emma Lebell:

I am very impressed that you managed to speak to Stephen King and not completely self destruct.

Me too.

From Rafael Rios:

I saw the things you talked about in books I read. I saw the thing about both the protagonist and antagonist thinking they’re right.

Literary analysis. Fantastic. Keep reading, and you’ll see it again and again. In movies and TV series, too.

From Ethan Ibarra:

You also taught us what a good novel needs, and one of your favorite authors is Ray Bradbury, which is an automatic plus.

Glad to hear it.

From Elijah Fitoh:

When people show that they’ve had to struggle to get where they are and that they think it was worth it, that’s what makes me want to keep trying.

This makes my entire trip worth it. Thank you so much.

All the letters were wonderful. I don’t have room to quote from every one of them, but thanks as well to Natalie Moreno, Asia Ballew, Anne Bailey, Lenlen Pinaoan, Jacob Alexander, Katie Vineall, Landyn, and Cayla Henry.

Keep writing, if that’s where your passion is. Keep dancing, drawing, singing, running, or whatever makes you happy.