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.

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