This weekend: Pflugerville Book Pfestival

2016-04-16 Pf Book Festival Poster

Saturday and Sunday I’ll be taking part in the first Pflugerville Book Pfestival. It’s sponsored by KAZI FM and yes, it’s spelled Pfestival. Or pspelled, maybe. It’s a Pflugerville thing.

The festival is free and open to the public. Take a look at the great authors coming, and the great topics we’ll be discussing. Come on down!

Pflugerville Book Festival
April 16-17, 2016
1:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Pflugerville Library
1008 W. Pfluger St.
Pflugerville, TX 78660
Contact: (512) 990-6375

Questions about writing: falling in love with your own characters

Here are a couple of final questions from my students in ITW’s Online Thriller School.

When creating a protagonist who features in a long running series, how do you keep the interest in the character alive in book after book? Would love to know how you have done this with Jo Beckett. Any tips or do’s and don’ts would be much appreciated.

TTLL_US_pbo create characters who stay interesting, think about their wants, needs, loves, drives, faults, strengths, and wounds. Give them interesting abilities. Give them limitations to work around. Let them have something valuable to say and do. Make sure they’re intelligent, observant, perhaps witty. And most important: Put them in interesting situations. Challenge them in novel ways. Show how they work a problem against difficult odds. That will help keep them interesting.

One of the books on my recommended reading list, Stein On Writing, discusses character in depth. Take a look at it.

And here’s what I didn’t get a chance to say in the Online Thriller School Q&A, about Jo Beckett.

Jo is an MD — a forensic psychiatrist. Her job itself is interesting, and the books explore how she tackles a variety of cases. She’s also a young widow. Over the course of the novels, she deals with the loss of her husband, and gradually emerges from her grief to fall in love with search and rescue expert Gabe Quintana. She develops a friendship with prickly SFPD lieutenant Amy Tang. She deals with her infatuated neighbor and with his evil monkey. She faces and tackles her personal phobias — of small spaces, and of flying. She examines her sister’s accusation (and Gabe’s fear) that she’s too much of an adrenaline junkie.

Jo learns, and grows, and does a whole lot of exciting stuff. I hope that keeps her interesting.

How do you get out of falling in love with a character and not wanting to see them get THAT hurt? Especially when you’re drawing on your own experiences. It feels like your punishing yourself.

This is an important question. The answer is that when you write fiction, at some point you have to step back from protecting your characters and let the chips fall where they may. You have to write the story honestly. You can either stop putting beloved characters in mortal danger, or you can show the consequences they suffer when they do get hurt.

This is one reason I urge writers not to stick too closely to their own experiences. If you’re writing fiction, you have to let go of the way “it really happened.” Instead, you have to take the story as far as it can go within the confines of the fictional world you’re creating. A character can have autobiographical characteristics, but you MUST separate yourself from your creations, or you’ll pull your punches.

I’ve been through this wringer with my own books. If you want to read about why I decided to stop protecting my characters, this blog post goes into it at greater length: Kill Your Darlings?

(If you’re interested in ITW or next year’s Online Thriller School, hit the link.)

Questions about writing: How do you increase tension?

Here are a couple more questions from my students in ITW’s Online Thriller School.  The topic: tension.

You have mentioned that it’s the characters who drive the plots and not the other way around…

In the previous lecture, David [Corbett] said that we need to increase tension in every scene as we progress, hence the characters would be acting accordingly… I mean, I don’t get it, I’m unable to understand how these two things tie up.

To increase tension (and keep the story interesting) I need to make scenes that would drive my characters (almost) insane with that specific goal that the story is about; at the same time, these scenes will in turn affect the character and how she would be reacting to each scene and progress; BUT you say, characters would be driving the plot…

I’m sorry if I seem to be going in circles, but could you clarify that for me??

Remember, characters don’t just react to tension. They are the ones who CREATE the tension. Every time one character does something, another responds. The protagonist and antagonist cause increasing problems for each other through their choices, actions, and reactions. This IS the plot. And it is shown in scenes. Tense scenes.

Thanks for the scene tension/reaction clarity. From your book, Phantom Instinct: “Then somebody throws a Molotov cocktail, and the club is quickly engulfed in flames. L.A. Sheriff Deputy Aiden Garrison sees a gunman in a hoodie and gas mask taking aim at Harper, but before he can help her a wall collapses, bringing the building down and badly injuring him.”

The “somebody” who threw the cocktail was the character who created this tension of the roof falling?? The gunman in a hoodie aiming at Harper is another character creating more tension??

So tension can be created by anyone? A bus driver swerving off to the side, a bike rider stopping to take a breath, it can be anyone from the protagonist/ antagonist to any insignificant character that comes for a split second and is never heard of again?

Yes, tension can be created by any character. It can also be created by nature (a cyclone, an earthquake, a fire). When you’re writing, keep in mind that you’ll create the greatest tension when it arises from conflict between the major characters.

(Interested in next year’s Online Thriller School, or ITW? Hit the link.)

Questions about writing: psychological thrillers

Today I’m posting more of my Q&A with students from ITW’s Online Thriller School. Here are a couple of questions about writing psychological thrillers. There’s a mild spoiler in my answer to the second question, if you want to avert your eyes.

“What would you say is the major difference between a suspense/thriller and a psychological thriller? So, for example, in a novel like Shutter Island, where the distinction between protagonist and antagonist blurs, what is the one major element that we need to keep in mind while creating a story in this genre?

Psychological thrillers focus on the psychology of the characters, of course — they deal with the mind, mind games, and mental and emotional competition between characters who are fighting to get what they want. They often feature unreliable narrators. If you’re writing a thriller that heavily features psychological aspects, the characters need to be deep and intelligent and full of wants, needs, and secrets.

Secondly, in Gone Girl the manner in which they introduced Amy’s character and virtually twisted the whole premise around came across as being highly manipulative. From that point on, the character motivations seemed totally inauthentic to me. Even though Shutter Island does the same thing, somehow the story was much more realistic and believable (at least to me). Do you think the difference lies in the way the stories were structured? And what is the one thing that as a writer I can do to make the story more believable to the reader/viewer?

Gone Girl is deliberately structured to reveal Amy’s manipulation halfway through. At that point, readers have to re-evaluate everything they’ve read so far, and wonder what in the world is going to happen next. Shutter Island holds back its key revelation until the very end. That’s neither better nor worse; it’s an authorial choice. I think one main difference between the two novels is that Shutter Island is told by a character who has empathy. That empathy suffuses the whole book.

To create believable stories, create believable characters and let them come to life on the page. Give them integrity. Understand who they are and why they make the choices they do. Never turn them into puppets who make choices because the plot demands it.

(If you’re interested in International Thriller Writers or next year’s ITW Online Thriller School, hit the link.)


Questions about writing: Do I get ideas from the news?

I’m an instructor for ITW’s 2016 Online Thriller School. My lecture went live last week, on Plot. Since then, I’ve been answering questions from students. Their queries have been really interesting, so I’m going to re-post a few for everyone who wants to know more about plotting a thriller. Here’s one:

Shadow“Do you ever find ideas for your fiction in the news? If so, can you comment on how you used them to develop your plots?”

I do get ideas from the news. I read about a French company that will kidnap you off the street — for fun, and for $1000. That kickstarted my novel The Nightmare Thief, about an “urban reality game” that goes wrong when the “kidnappers” at a 21st birthday party turn out to be real kidnappers. And I read about the NSA’s huge new data center in Utah, and wondered: Is it truly possible to go off the grid in 21st century America? That grew into The Shadow Tracer, where a skip tracer has to disappear and go on the run with her five-year-old daughter.

Ideas are everywhere. Spinning them into compelling narratives takes lots of practice.

“Could you detail how you transfer a real news item into a detailed plot say for one of the two books of yours that you mentioned. Obviously, the reality of what happened in the real news item is not used verbatim and has to be re-massaged. What is the process you go through and how does your new plot develop?”

Sure. Let’s look at my novel The Shadow Tracer. I read about the NSA’s Utah facility, built to store a bajillion terabytes of data and metadata. I knew that personal, private information about all of us would probably be stored there without our knowledge. I thought about how often we hear talk of “going off the grid.” I wondered: in a high tech, highly connected western country, is that actually possible?

That “what if” got me brainstorming. Suppose somebody wanted to go off the grid. Who? Why? I decided that the person who wanted to disappear would be the heroine in the novel. So I had to give her a compelling reason to vanish. Bad guys were after her, obviously. Who were they? How far would they go to find her?

From there, I decided that the heroine, Sarah Keller, needed to have serious skills. That’s why I made her a skip tracer. She chases down fugitives for a living. She learned how to do this job because she wanted to know how to disappear if the time ever came.

This led me to research how to disappear. Which then led to writing scenes where Sarah plays cat-and-mouse with people she’s tracking. Those scenes reveal a secret world, which is fun to read about.

But the surveillance state, and skip tracing tricks, form only the skin and bones of the story. They’re the background. I had to come up with a compelling reason for Sarah to flee from the life she has carefully constructed. The most compelling reason I could create was: She goes on the run to protect her five-year-old daughter.

This complicates the story — which is good. It’s one thing for a single adult to skip out on her life. It’s harder for a mother with a young child. They’re easily identified as a duo. And keeping a child out of danger limits the places Sarah can go and the actions she can take.

Then I had to figure out: Who wants this little girl, and why? Well — it’s her father’s family. They want to bring her home to the clan. And they’re an evil clan, twisted by religion and their methamphetamine business.

Then: What if the FBI has been trying to bring down the clan, and sees Sarah and little Zoe as the perfect bait? Now Sarah has two sets of antagonists.

Then: Does Sarah have allies? Who can she call on — while racing across the Southwest — to help her? Well, how about somebody who also deals with fugitive apprehension: a U.S. Marshal?

Then: How did she meet the marshal? Under what set of stressful circumstances? What isn’t Sarah telling anybody? What are her secrets?

The story was spun from all these ideas.

A news item can spark a novel, but I don’t ever try stick to the facts of the item. It’s ONLY a spark. It’s the ignition source. I have to pour my own gasoline on the fire, and see what burns.

(If you’re interested in next year’s online course, you can check it out via International Thriller Writers.)

Creating dread and portent with a single image: Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul.jpg

If you know me, you know I injured myself while watching Breaking Bad in a frenzy of suspense and anxiety. I love that show. I think it’s the best television series of all time. Even though it put me in the ER.

Now I’m watching Better Call Saul, the prequel centered on the sleazy, endearing attorney from Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman. Like BB, this show is a character study. It’s sharp and blazingly funny and occasionally heartbreaking. It has built its own world, which only occasionally crosses paths with characters from BB. So when it does, it jolts us. As in the image above.

Ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut is being drawn into Albuquerque’s criminal underworld by doing occasional protection jobs for low level criminals. But he’s gotten in deep, and some very bad guys are putting pressure on him. He has resisted, but in this scene, he sees how badly he’s outflanked. He’s watching over his little granddaughter as she splashes in the pool. Then he looks up and sees two tiny figures on a distant rooftop.

Watching at home, all the hairs stood up on my head. Mike has never seen these two before, but the audience has. They’re the Cousins, hitmen who’ll shoot and kill twenty migrant workers in the back of a truck with the same dismissive ease with which they’d discard a gum wrapper. With their shaved heads, richly colored suits, their cowboy boots with silver skulls on the toes, they personify casual, hungry evil. We first see them in Breaking Bad, crawling on their bellies across a Mexican desert to the shrine of some dark, twisted saint, where they pray for divine help to kill Heisenberg.

When they appear — tiny, motionless, like toy plastic Army Men set on the roof, dread falls heavily over the scene. In the bright sunlight, positioned before the spire of Albuquerque’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, they’re like demons summoned from the Beyond.

That’s because this scene is an example of Dramatic Irony. In literary terms, dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows events before they happen. We know what awaits all these characters, years in the future. They don’t. Because of that, we watch — riveted — not because we’re curious about what’s going to happen, but in dread of the disaster that lies ahead, and with compassion for somebody who’s heading for a cliff.

The writers handle this brilliantly. This scene — minimalist and foreboding — weaves together plot threads that go back, and forward, for years. It amplifies and deepens them. If any of us can approach this level of impact with our own writing, we’ll be lucky.

When this image appeared on my TV screen, I shouted, “Oh, my God.” But this time I didn’t wave my hands wildly and stab myself in the eye. I know what’s coming. I can wait.

You know what to do


It’s spring, and in the Texas Hill Country, the bluebonnets are in bloom.

It’s a good day to remember to stop and smell the flowers.