Tag Archives: Thrillers

UNSUB book tour wrap-up

UNSUB Chauffeur

The UNSUB book tour spanned several weeks, seven thousand miles, and was accomplished via car, plane, subway, phone, and foot. It included radio interviews, book signings, talks, podcasts, and seminars. And a 100-mile drive through a crazy thunderstorm to Houston. It even featured a driver who greeted me at the Oakland airport, wearing the appropriate chauffeur’s hat and sign. Of course, it helped that she was my daughter.

In all, it was productive, invigorating, and uplifting.

SiriusXMI got to talk to readers across the United States, and do events with wonderful writers including Jeff Abbott and Spencer Quinn. I got to meet one of my literary idols, Don Winslow, who has been incredibly supportive of my work. Don shared an evening with me at Barnes & Noble in Dallas, and the event was as fun and inspiring as I could have hoped for.

I got to visit the Sirius XM studios in New York City, where I recorded a segment for Entertainment Weekly’s radio show, Off The Books, with its host, Tina Jordan. I got to speak on a panel at Thrillerfest with writers I worship, including the great Walter Mosley. What a privilege.

Thanks to the Husband for going on a road trip with me across Texas and Oklahoma. And thanks to everyone who came to my events: my bridesmaids, friends from England, dedicated mystery readers, fellow writers, former federal agents, cousins, and the Husband’s college roommate… even though he attempted to confess to being the Zodiac killer. (Fat chance, Pete — Ted Cruz is higher on my suspect list than you are.)

NMM@TBSThanks especially to the booksellers — from Austin, Houston, Phoenix, Orinda, San Francisco, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Manhattan, and Brooklyn — who welcomed me and opened their doors to help launch UNSUB.

Thanks once more to the readers of Oklahoma, who have again made both UNSUB and China Lake Top Ten bestsellers this week. This native daughter of Oklahoma is elated.

Thanks to the Daughter and Son-in-Law for driving me around the Bay Area and being my People for a day. Thanks to the Sons for hanging with their mom in New York City, and for taking me to the Every Time I Die / Taking Back Sunday concert at Webster Hall. To quote my son after the concert: “Nobody can believe you actually came. Literally not one person I know can believe you came to this concert.” Mom for the win!

So, to conclude my UNSUB summer tour, have some celebratory music and stage confetti. Here’s Taking Back Sunday opening their show with “Tidal Wave.”

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

CreativeMorningsMG copy

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: 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.)

Reminder: ITW Online Thriller School


Reminder: Next month I’ll be one of the instructors for the International Thriller Writers’ Online Thriller School. I’m joining Lee Child, James Scott Bell, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Peter James, F. Paul Wilson, and David Corbett in teaching the online course, which starts March 14.

Here’s an overview of the course, from its director, D.P. Lyle, MD:

This year’s seven-week program begins March 14th, 2016, and as before the craft of thriller writing will be front and center. Each instructor will teach an aspect of craft though a podcast, written materials that include further reading and study suggestions, and an entire week of on-line Q&A with the registered students. The goal is simple: To make each student a better writer.

A brief preview of my talk on Plot is now available to listen to online, if you want a taste.

For more information or if you want to register: ITW Online Thriller School.