Tag Archives: Creative Writing

Guest Post on Mystery Fanfare — UNSUB: When Cold Cases Kill

I have a guest post today on Mystery Fanfare, about the writing of my upcoming novel.

(Mystery Fanfare is an online adjunct to Mystery Readers International, whose members vote for the Macavity Awards.)

1121 UNSUB

UNSUB: When Cold Cases Kill

UNSUB is about a legendary killer and the young cop who hunts him. In my thriller, the UNSUB—an unknown subject in a criminal investigation—starts killing again after twenty years, and Caitlin Hendrix must decipher his coded plan before he drags more innocents to the abyss.

The novel was sparked by the unsolved case that has haunted California for decades, and me since childhood: the Zodiac. That infamous UNSUB shot and stabbed seven people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Zodiac sent dozens of messages to the police and media, including cryptograms that have never been broken. The terror wrought by the killings still lingers today.

Head on over to read the rest.

And don’t forget — UNSUB is published in June, but you can preorder it now.

Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Amazon

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.)

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.

Blast from the Past: Writing Chase Scenes

Today I’m dipping into the blog’s archives. From December 2012: Writing Chase Scenes.

I got a question from a writer today: “I’m struggling with writing about journeys/chases/pursuits. Any tips? Who does them best?” He’s writing about a “journey across Russia & into Georgia, evading KGB, switching trains, sleeping rough, some bullet-dodging…” and his question is: “It has to be made possible without being so detailed it’s dull and nitpicky. So, when to describe and when to skip?”

Some general suggestions for building a suspenseful journey/chase:

1. Set up. Build in suspense, tension and questions from the beginning. The hero must get to Kamchatka or Terrible Thing X will happen. The heroine must escape from Moscow with The Tiny Thing the Spies Want, or the truth will die with her. Give the character a goal. Lay out the stakes.

2. Build up. Make the goal important: freedom, rescue, justice, survival. Then start throwing obstacles in the character’s path. Add time pressure. Throw in a monkey wrench: the flight is canceled. The flight is boarded by the police. The flight is brought down in the middle of the steppe by a flock of geese, and now the hero must accomplish his escape on horseback.

3. Climax. Add emotional pressure. Up the stakes. The Tiny Thing the Spies Want starts ticking. The cub scout troop that’s leading the hero out of the forest betrays him to the KGB. The hero finally eludes the cops and arrives at the convent with seconds to spare… only to discover that Sister Mary Margaret has been taken hostage by the bad guys.

Two other points:

4. What to skip. The dull, nitpicky parts. I don’t say that to be snarky — if a section feels dull and nitpicky, cut it. You can summarize uneventful portions of a long journey in a few sentences: “The border cop finally stamped his passport. Sweating, he boarded the train. Four days later, he climbed off in Novosibirsk.” Or you can jump cut: Scene A = the border crossing. Scene B = the cafe in Novosibirsk. Show the scenes where the big action occurs. Allude to everything else.

5. Ingenuity. Chase scenes have become a mainstay in thrillers. The trick is to keep them fresh. Vanilla won’t cut it anymore. You need to think of unexpected twists and build them in from the beginning.

AND: Chase scenes should be designed to reveal, develop, or illustrate character. (Thanks to Jeff Abbott for reminding me of this point.)

Who writes good chase scenes? Examples from novels:

Ian Rankin, Tooth and Nail — a car chase through London with Rebus in a judge’s Jaguar. And it turns out that the elderly judge is in the back seat.

Michael Connelly, The Black Echo — Harry Bosch on foot in the storm drains and sewers beneath Los Angeles, facing his greatest fear and going back in the tunnels to hunt down major criminals.

Lee Child, Gone Tomorrow — Reacher escapes cops who are pursuing him through the New York subway.

Justin Cronin, The Passage — this novel contains various intense and inventive chases featuring pursuits on foot, horseback, and on a train. Most of the action is between humans and virals (“don’t call them vampires”).

Movies: We’re spoiled for choice.

Bullitt: the ur-chase

The French Connection

Ronin

The Bourne trilogy

The Dead Pool: This one puts a twist on the car chase and is a (funny) homage. Clint Eastwood is chased across the hills of San Francisco, a la Steve McQueen in Bullitt — but by a tiny remote controlled car that’s packed with explosives.

If you can’t tell, I love chase scenes. Love to read them, watch them, and especially to write them. Some scenes I’ve written:

Mission Canyon: Evan Delaney must flee a murderer on foot through the foothills of Santa Barbara. But: she must make sure he stays on her tail instead of attacking somebody else, who’s injured and can’t flee. And it turns out the murderer is chasing her in a Porsche.

Kill Chain: Evan escapes an assassin in Bangkok on foot and by boat, only to run up against her again in London. But: now Evan is trying to rescue a school girl, and the assassin has managed to get on the same crowded Underground train.

The Memory Collector: Jo Beckett drives through San Jose, trying to escape the marksman in the SUV behind her who’s armed with a high powered rifle. And: Jo is handcuffed to the steering wheel. And the marksman doesn’t know his wife and son are in Jo’s vehicle. And the only path to escape is across an active runway at a major airport.

I hope that begins to answer the question. As for examples of good chase scenes — any favorites out there?

Ask Me Anything 2017: Do I ever scrap ideas? Does my inner critic still pipe up?

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Today I’m wrapping up this session of Q&A by answering these last few questions from readers.

djpaterson asks:

Do you ever get a fair way in, say 20k+ words, and decide that it’s not working, and scrap the idea?

Yes. I’ve written more than twenty thousand words and scrapped the idea. The photo above shows a binder containing 100 pages of notes and the first few chapters of an espionage novel I worked on for months, and months. And finally abandoned, because it was an absurd and doomed idea.

And I wrote the opening chapters to an Evan Delaney novel that ground to an unceremonious halt about sixty pages in because I simply ran out of ideas. I put that story away for six months, picked it up again, and clawed my way through to the end. I should have left it unfinished — the plot was weak, and in the end, no matter how many times I fiddled around and jammed crazy subplots into it, that novel wasn’t published. The story wasn’t strong enough.

But that was a long time ago. I’ve learned since then. Now I brainstorm ideas with my agent and editor before I start to write. I discard the ones that fall flat. I work up an outline. I rework it. I tear my hair out. I work it again, until the professionals I work with think it pops.

Easy peasy. It only took me twenty years to learn this.

Lisa asks:

A little late getting a question in, but here goes anyway. After all the books you’ve written and all of us readers who love your work, do you believe you are a successful author, or does your inner critic pipe up once in a while?

I can’t legitimately deny that I’m successful as an author, because I can look at my bookshelf and see a dozen published novels. I see everything I dreamed of as a kid, as a teenager, as a college student, there in black and white.

And of course my inner critic pops up. Regularly. It sticks its head up when my editor suggests I dig deeper into the emotional conflict between characters, and when my agent says that my outline still needs work because it’s fat with exposition and riddled with plot holes. It pokes a finger in my back at times like this morning, when I draft a scene and think: Where’s the tension? What’s the revelation? What difference does this make?

I’m glad it does.

My inner critic spurs me to dig in, do the work, and improve my writing. If my inner critic didn’t flick spitballs at me, all I’d have on my bookshelf is that reeking binder with notes for a disastrous, never-written thriller.

Bill Malloy writes:

I still want to know about those flying monkeys, and, whether
they will someday make an appearance?

Right now they’re too busy in my basement, typing away at my next novel, so… wait, what’s this?

Dan writes:

Shhh, You’ll wake the flying monkeys.

Well, you’ve done it. Fly, my pretties! Fly!

Ask Me Anything 2017: law enforcement research? Character names?

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I’m still answering readers’ questions. Today we have a couple more from stevenangie05.

First:

Say you have never been an attorney and you are a new author. How would you get law enforcement to help with information on procedures?

Many law enforcement agencies have public relations departments, or media affairs officers. Check out the agency’s website to find contact information. Write or call to find out what kind of information they provide. Some offer citizens’ police academies to give the public a taste of an officer’s job.

Some writing conferences — those with a crime, mystery, or thriller focus — bring in officers to offer seminars and answer writers’ questions. I’ve attended conferences where bomb squads have brought their equipment vans, and where officers demonstrate firearms safety. For the past few years, the FBI has offered a full-day seminar to writers attending ThrillerFest, at their New York office.

Some law enforcement agencies have ride-along programs that allow citizens to spend a shift on patrol with uniformed officers. I’ve gone on ride alongs twice; once in high school and once, a couple of years ago, in Austin… both of which turned into interesting experiences.

Second:

How do you come up with names for all the characters?

To name characters, I have to get to know them. Their names have to fit their personalities and their role in the story. Heroine? Hero? Villain? Prickly cop? Nosy neighbor?

Evil monkey?

To round out the cast, I check that I haven’t given characters names that are too similar — Danny and Donny; Gary, Gabby and Gordon; Mary, Marie, and Mara. I also read through baby name books, phone books (I have an old one lying around), and the credits at the end of movies. Crew names are a trove of possibility.

And now that I have a dozen books under my belt, my husband no longer panics when he walks into my office and sees 10,000 Baby Names open on my desk.