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Monday, October 29, 2012

How to Write a Thriller: The Gift and the Curse

If you've ever considered writing a book, you know there are a lot of posts out there that can help you with the mechanics of writing. However, I find many don't address the essence of it. I write thrillers that breathe and have a heartbeat because I flesh-out my made up world on the bones of the real world. That makes it easier for my readers to accept my lies, but it makes it harder on me because my lies have to ring true.

1. Know Your Stuff

Unless you're writing a non-fiction book about a specific event in history, you're going to be able to take some literary license in your subject matter. That's truly the gift and the curse in writing a fiction book. You can do whatever you damned well please. It's your thoughts, it's your world. So create what you want. That's the gift part, but for your work to be truly believable and really give the reader a great experience, you're going to have to do a lot of research and know your subject matter inside and out. That's the curse part. In order to create a believable world with problems that hook your reader into your drama, you have to    be able to draw clear and concise pictures with only the words you put on the paper.

That's where knowing your stuff comes in. My training as a lawyer drilled into me the power of the crafted sentence and the hidden power of manipulation in the omission. If your story has a backdrop of a specific event, then know the event, the time of year it happened, news analysis of all perspectives, who the major players were, etc. This is not to say you have to memorize and quote all sorts of details, but you want to know at least as much as your least informed reader and you should know a bit more than your better informed readers. That way, you can still create your compelling tale and it will be seeded with enough details that: 1) you're educating your lesser informed readers and 2) you've earned the trust of the more informed readers so they'll be willing to stretch their "belief bubble" to keep reading your entertaining story.

2. Know When to Bluff

Knowing your stuff does not mean you have to become a big bore. Different authors and different audiences will have varying degrees of need for explicit details. If you're writing a tale about military procedures in the Arctic, then you had better be aware of the effect of extreme cold on rifles and whether it's likely your characters would use Gun Butter or not. (I'll let you google this question for yourself.) Some readers love the minute details and others simply want to know enough move on with the story. Just because you know all the answers from googling Gun Butter does not mean you have to write each and every fact down. You need to know enough about your subject to know what you don't know to avoid tripping over a fact that causes your readers to lose trust in you. However, what you choose to put on the page is as important as what you leave off of it.

The power of the omission is a huge and wonderful device. An omission is leaving out a fact or a reaction that your reader could have wanted or needed. It can be used for pure bluffing purposes - when we truly don't know the answer in spite of our research - or for pure manipulation - when we need a bit more time to weave our tale. Also, the magnificent omission is when you know your reader will assume something - like a character's innocence - and you let them believe it because that assumption helps your story grow.

3. Know enough to stretch the "Belief Bubble"

Writing a good thriller means expanding your reader's world a little bit at a time. Your reader lives in something I call the "Belief Bubble" - simply it's a little bit of space surrounding them that keeps the real world out and let's the story expand on the breath of your lies. If you've done your homework on setting, character traits, skills needed for character development or story texture and much more, you are well on your way to creating a great reading experience because you can expand the reader's bubble a little puff at a time. Readers will let you do this for as long as they are engaged in your story. If your story takes an off-the-wall turn or the facts don't line up just right or your character's motivation doesn't ring true, you run the risk of bursting their bubble and they won't read another word.

A good, heart-thumping thriller is based on what the reader knows or thinks they do. The essence of your story exists in the details - both stated and assumed. Your job is to mesh their world with your made up one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Barn Fires

Someone recently asked what the significance of barn fires was to me. My book's back cover watermark references one and certainly there was a gripping scene about a fire. The Charity's Facebook banner often features an image of the aftermath of a barn fire, too. So what gives?

A bit of back story: I mentioned in an earlier blog that writing is not an isolating experience as it brings into focus all of a writer's life events. These events are sifted through and examined to bring perspective to a fact based journalism piece or to bring to life a fictional scene or story. I believe that a hallmark of good fiction writing (especially of the legal thriller variety) is to ground the story in enough realism and fact that your reader is happily led from the threads of truth into your web of lies. For me, using a strong foundation of personal experience helps to create stories that are solid, compelling and worthy of my reader's investment of time.

And now the real back story: When I was a little girl of five, an arsonist burned down my family's dairy barn. It was the first time I was exposed to the fact that good people have bad things happen to them and that a person who may "look nice" can do unspeakable acts of evil. The images on The Charity's Facebook page and the watermark on the back cover are images from my childhood. Frankly, it was only when I was an adult I that placed the term "terrorism" over that single act of a man with a grudge and a match.

I'm sure that future blogs will develop around the threads and plot lines of my main character's travails, but the overarching theme of who she - Jessica - is and what the life events are that shaped her source back to that St. Patrick's day when my backyard was filled with flames.

Facebook page for The Charity

Friday, October 12, 2012


I've been very pleased with the positive response The Charity is getting from new readers. One question I often get is people wondering who the characters are based on. I found that it's not as easy to answer that question as I would have thought.

Some of the characters tripped off my fingers and were introduced to me through the scene. When I closed my eyes I could see and hear them and then tried my best to describe what it was they had to say. Many writers have their scenes outlined and their character profiles all mapped out before they even write their first word. I applaud their organization but certainly fail miserably in those efforts. I had a location for a scene in my head and knew the direction the story had to go. The citizens of that location became actors on a stage. I merely watched the action and took down notes.

That said, I also knew that there had to be a fly in the ointment. Other characters I created had a specific purpose in mind. The Charity has a world that holds itself in a delicate balance - a balance that is easy offset when attention is brought to it. My story needed a device or two that would upset that balance, so two characters were born. One character is a dynamic social maven and the other is an ambitious reporter. Candidly, I've been surprised by how much the reporter has resonated with readers. She (the reporter) really hits a nerve. I'm glad. My book isn't supposed to be a "feel good" romp. It's frightening and I'm glad I've created characters that add to the tension.

One of the most gratifying statements about my book came in a conversation this week with a new fan. She said lost a lot of sleep staying up to read the book (a comment I get a lot) and lost sleep worrying about Jessica Wyeth, the main character. She became really emotionally invested in Jessica and found herself rooting for Jessica. The clincher for me came when she talked about finishing the book. My reader said she really missed Jessica, that she missed the world that was created in The Charity, and that she missed the characters and wanted to spend more time with them.

Wow. I can't tell you how awesome that was to know my goal was accomplished. I created a story and a world that took people away from their own lives for a while and gave them something they could hold on to-a feeling that they had found a friend in a character I created.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Process - Part 2

The Charity and I are definitely going through a process together, although different in nature.

One aspect of this multi-pronged process is the "art" of building a reader base. Right now, The Charity is in a phase I call the "Three 'F' Soft Start." Friends. Family. Facebook. This means that my book's audience is in a tight circle around me and Charylar Press (more on that later). The email campaigns and marketing push will come later, but for now it's time for me to get a real feel for what kind of legs The Charity has.

I've been very pleased by the response of my readers. I'm about as hard on myself as a person can be - a perfectionist who sometimes loses sight of the whole picture because of a perceived flaw. This means that I listen very critically. No compliment goes into my heart until it is fully analyzed through a HEPA filter of questions and assessments. I know that folks out there may not want to say something bad about work to the person who has created that work. It's just human nature to be that way and I'm guilty of it too.

But here's the thing: People are telling me they really like The Charity. Not just the polite garden variety compliment, but the genuine "Wow! You owe me a night's sleep" variety. Part of the book's process was a thorough vetting by a lot of readers of different kinds of genres. From the start, I received positive feedback but could hear the unspoken criticism that would have made the book stronger for that reader. (I received my share of spoken criticism, too.) I stayed true to my story but sharpened the book to a razor's edge on the strap of my reader's insights.

So, now I'm in the soft start phase and am listening carefully to feedback to assess The Charity's legs. This is what I'm learning: My reader base is large. Folks that predominantly read non-fiction are getting absorbed into my story. Readers that don't usually go for thrillers are finding themselves taken by the love story. Fans of the legal thriller are completely satisfied by Jessica's dilemmas. I'm finding that The Charity has a great set of legs for a pretty broad reader base.

Like a young colt, The Charity is up on its knobby legs and giving them a stretch to test them out. I'm just trotting it around the track to see who the heavy bettors are.