Category Archives: Writing

UNSUB book tour: Dallas added

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Here’s the latest on my book tour schedule for UNSUB. I’ve added July 5th in Dallas, where I’ll be talking to the amazing Don Winslow, discussing his hugely anticipated new novel The Force. 

UNSUB Book Tour:

June 26: Book People, Austin, Texas – 7PM
Moderated by Jeff Abbott

June 27: Murder by the Book, Houston – 6:30PM

June 28: Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Arizona – 7PM
In conversation with Spencer Quinn

June 29: Orinda Books, Orinda, California – 11:30AM

June 29: Bookshop West Portal, San Francisco – 7PM

July 5: Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Park, Dallas — 6PM
With Don Winslow

July 6: Best of Books, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma — 6PM

ThrillerFest XII
July 14-15, 2017
Grand Hyatt New York City

I hope I’ll see you along the way!

Writing writing writing… and UNSUB is coming

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My new thriller, UNSUB, will be published June 27th. This week I’m getting ready — planning my travel for the book tour, writing articles, doing interviews, and honing my ninja skills to a high level. As you do.

I’m also working on the sequel to this novel. So I’ve been editing a fight scene. Which means I asked the Husband to teach me how to take down a knife-wielding home invader, using only a leather belt and some momentum. As you do. Unlike a few years ago, this time I managed to act out the fictional fight without scaring the neighbors or my children. That’s a win.

And after going for my husband with a wrench (standing in for the knife), I feel confident that in real life he would have disarmed me and laid me out flat in less than a second. I’m glad I have him in the house. And I re-confirmed my decision never to take up home burglary.

The fight scene I wrote today will be published in 2018. In the meanwhile, you can preorder UNSUB.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon | iBooks

Book People | Murder by the Book

Read an excerpt from UNSUB

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Over on Medium, my publisher has posted an excerpt from my upcoming novel, UNSUB. The excerpt includes portions of three scenes from the first chapters of the novel. Here’s the opening:

April 1998

The yelling woke her, the rough voice of her father, shouting into the phone.

“Listen to me. We don’t have days. We have hours.”

The black sky poured through the bedroom window. Shadows crawled the ceiling.

“Don’t you understand? It’s in his message — Mercury rises with the sun.”

Caitlin curled into a ball, hugging her bear. She knew what Mercury meant. It meant flashing lights and BREAKING NEWS and everybody so scared. A body bag sliding into the coroner’s black van. KILLER CLAIMS EIGHTH VICTIM. It meant you could never close your eyes or turn your back. Because he could get you anytime, anywhere.

Click to check out the rest. UNSUB: excerpts.

And remember: The book’s out June 27, but you can pre-order today.

Indiebound | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Book People | Murder by the Book

Questions about writing: Beginnings, middles, ends… and tension

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Today I’m re-posting more of the Q&A with my students in this year’s ITW Online Thriller School.

1. I wonder if you have a sense of Beginning/Middle/End markers in your books and the relative proportions given to each?

Beginning/middle/end: There are no hard and fast rules for when one of these turns into the next. But if you consider them the first, second, and third acts in a drama, you probably won’t go wrong by thinking in terms of the beginning as first quarter of the book, the middle as the next two quarters, and the end as the final quarter. Your mileage will vary according to the needs of the story.

2. Although a 200 page Middle has many scenes, do you think a small number of locations is okay? David Corbett says that tension, not action, keeps readers reading, and through the earlier scenes of my Middle the hero is in one place, ‘safe’ from immediate danger, gathering information, but with a sense of a ‘gathering storm’ beyond.

A small number of locations can work perfectly well if the suspense and level of conflict continues to build. That’s the whole idea behind the “crucible” of the story — the characters are in some sort of cauldron that limits their ability to escape the conflict. Limiting the setting can accomplish that.

3. And what do you think tension actually is? Is it different to suspense? Lee Child says suspense arises from unanswered questions. Is tension similarly about questions? Is it about danger? About twists and turns? About peaks and troughs, the rollercoaster? And is conflict different to tension, conflict really about the opposing forces in the crucible?

Tension is distinct from suspense. Tension means to draw something tight or put it under strain. For thriller-writing purposes, consider tension equal to excitement. It comes in brief bursts. Danger, confrontation, friction; time running out; deadlines approaching. Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension is felt in seconds or minutes.

4. You talked about ending chapters with questions. You didn’t mention ‘cliff-hangers’. I’m thinking that questions and cliff-hangers may be a bit like tension and action. Lots of questions good. Too many cliff-hangers not so good!?

Use cliffhangers whenever, wherever, and however you can. Always end a chapter on some kind of cliffhanger. Just remember, they can be emotional as well as physical.

5. You talked about the antagonist thwarting the protagonist’s desire. Do you think sometimes the protagonist’s desire is simply to stop the villain, a desire that didn’t exist until the villain appeared? You also mentioned the cliché of a hero’s family being threatened, but in many thrillers the hero must rescue those close to him. Do you think sometimes cliché vs not cliché is a fine line?

Stopping the antagonist can certainly be the core of the protagonist’s desire. That’s how almost all police procedurals work. But remember that the protagonist is trying to stop the antagonist from doing something awful. That’s what adds resonance and tension, in a lot of cases.

6. I’d wondered about plot and story and concluded that plot was ‘contrived’ by the author, while story was driven by the characters… and the more you let the characters do what they do rather than try to control them the better. I’d almost decided plot was a negative thing! Your podcast helped me realize that plot and character together make a story. And perhaps plot is in every thriller, but it’s the degree of ‘plotting’ that varies from author to author? I wonder if you draw a distinction between plot and story?

Plot is the series of events the author chooses to portray on the page to tell the story.

What you’ve clarified is that plot is the series of events or storyline, connected by causality, used to tell the story. And that plot develops from what the characters do, so in effect they create the causality, they do drive the plot, so as you say plot and character are two sides of the same coin. I hope that’s a fair understanding? And I think you’re saying it’s ALL story (what has happened), and plot is what we use to tell it (how it happens, whether or not we devise that plot beforehand or it develops as we write)?

You’ve got it.

Stories are metaphors for life. In stories, we recognize ourselves — our struggles, our striving, our quests. As a writer, when you create fiction, you’re designing how you’ll present your story to readers. That’s plot.

And you’re right: Don’t overthink it. Know that there are classic, archetypal ways to tell stories, and figure out if the tale you’re writing fits with any of them. But don’t tie yourself in knots. Plot is what the characters do, and how you choose to depict their journey on the page. Some writers create a detailed itinerary ahead of time; others have a sense of where they want to go, and strike out, breaking trail. You need to know what works best for you.

And always enjoy the trip.

Questions about writing: Do I outline? Do I plot?

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This year I once again taught a course on Plot for the International Thriller Writers’ Online Thriller School. As I did last year, I’m re-posting portions of my questions and answers with students, for anybody who wants to learn more about plotting a thriller.

To start:

What is your process for outlining novels?

Are there sources that you like to draw on? There are many different plot structures; [Robert] McKee advocates a three-act structure. Do you have any favorites?

When I develop a novel — through brainstorming, outlining, and drafting — I need two things first: a compelling main character, and a sharp hook for the plot. In any novel, but especially a thriller, the hook will involve the antagonist, and the threat they present. Outlining means working out the most surprising, challenging turns of plot that I can imagine. Then reworking them to be even more challenging and surprising, and to drill deeper into the characters’ lives — their fears, loves, and desires — so that the story is satisfying on every level. It can take months from the initial idea until an outline is in decent shape. I don’t outline every single scene, but I do make sure to include the inciting incident, all major turning points, and the ending.

McKee recommends the classic three-act structure (what he calls arch-plot) for the majority of novel (or feature) length stories. (He also discusses minimalist plots, and anti-plots.) Three-act dramas have been drawing audiences since plays were performed in Greek amphitheaters. There’s a solid reason they work so well. AKA: they have a beginning, middle, and end. You can play around with the structure of a plot if you understand how to build a story to a satisfying conclusion. My own novels follow a three act structure, sometimes with another major turning point in the middle of Act Two.

I love three-act dramas. They work, and work well.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you have a process that helps you keep track of all the moving parts, or can you just keep it all in your head?

I am most definitely a plotter. I have to be. The last time I tried to write by the seat of my pants, I ended up lost in the woods, without a paddle, a creek, or any path out of the trees.

I tend to keep several initial documents in a computer folder: an outline, character sketches, and research. It’s always good to write down ideas as soon as they hit me. I keep a small notebook and pen handy so I can put thoughts on paper — even a few words. That’s better than forgetting the idea that came to me while I was at the check stand at the supermarket.

I’m interested in your thoughts about choosing and handling Point of View when creating the protagonist and antagonist, particularly within the principle of antagonism.

The choice whether to write scenes in the antagonist’s POV — in addition to the protagonist’s — will depend on the story, the writer’s voice, and how close you want to get to the antagonist’s mind. It can work brilliantly but isn’t always necessary. In The Silence of the Lambs, we’re never in Hannibal Lecter’s POV. Showing him solely in opposition to the other characters is powerful enough. And of course, in a story written in first person, the antagonist remains necessarily opaque to a certain degree. You just have to try it and see what works best for your own work.

More questions and answers coming soon.

(If you’re interested in taking next year’s online course, check it out here.)

UNSUB sold to CBS

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So here’s some news: my upcoming novel UNSUB has been optioned for development as a television series by CBS. Here’s the story from Deadline Hollywood:

CBS Television Studios to adapt UNSUB as TV series.

EXCLUSIVE: CBS Television Studios has pre-emptively bought the rights to Edgar-winning author Meg Gardiner’s forthcoming novel UNSUB, ahead of an auction, to adapt for television. The novel, the first in a series, will be published June 27 by Dutton/Penguin Random House. It will be developed as a TV series by Carl Beverly and Sarah Timberman, who’ll be executive producers through their studio-based Timberman-Beverly Productions banner, along with The Story Factor’s Shane Salerno. The author, who who has spent years researching celebrated unsub cases, will also serve as a producer. They will begin talking to writers and showrunners quickly.

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Yes, I am pumped. Yes, Deadline Hollywood posted the news alongside pictures of Baywatch and the new Fast and Furious movie. I’m digging it.

The thriller follows a female detective on the trail of an infamous serial killer – inspired by the still-unsolved Zodiac case – when he breaks his silence and begins killing again. The detective, who grew up watching her father destroy himself and his family chasing the killer, now finds herself facing the same monster. Her work brings her to the attention of the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, where she goes to work hunting other UNSUBs (UNknown SUBjects, a term used for suspects in a criminal investigation) while being tormented by the killer her father never caught.

Timberman and Beverly are executive producers of CBS’ Elementary and previously exec produced Justified, Masters of Sex and Unforgettable. The duo is post on the CBS/CBS Studios Navy SEALs drama pilot with David Boreanaz.

I couldn’t be more excited.

Crime writers: a “fatal lack of talent”?

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Last week, William O’Rourke, emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame, wrote an essay for the Irish Times about the Irish writer Michael Collins, his former student. Things kicked off from there. O’Rourke wrote:

Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader.

And from crime writers came laughter, and spit-takes, and the rolling of eyes. Until the Books Editor of the Irish Times, Martin Doyle, invited us to respond. Thirteen of us did: ‘Untalented’ crime writers respond to their No 1 critic.

My contribution:

I had a drop of talent once. I got rid of it. Sold it out of the boot of my car so I could write a crime novel.

My main point is this:

There’s a damaging belief that talent is binary. You either have it – gifted by genetics, the Almighty, a lotto scratch card – or not. You’ve got it? Off you go to Hogwarts. You don’t? Muggle. Give up. Don’t waste our time.

But as a writer, a teacher, and above all as a parent, I’ve come to regard talent as a false god.

Read on for the rest of my response, and for replies from Sarah Hilary, John Banville, Declan Hughes, and a host of other fine crime writers.