You know that question, “If you could have dinner with any three people alive or dead who would it be?” Well I just had something like that actually happen to me.
Imagine you got to spend some time and have drinks with the biggest writers of the suspense, thriller and horror genres: Lee Child (Jack Reacher series), R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), Anne Rice (Vampire Chronicles), Joseph Finder (Paranoia—in theaters Aug 16), David Morrell (First Blood-Rambo), and dozens more. Yeah, I did that last week.
I read and study fiction because I believe in the power of stories and because understanding compelling fiction makes my non-fiction better. So when I was invited to ThrillerFest in New York this year I jumped at the chance to meet some of my favorite authors and to learn some tricks of the trade.
Below are some tips and observations I jotted down, and apologies I didn’t note who “said it” in all cases.
1) “Write the book you want to read,” Anne Rice. At the time she wrote Interview with the Vampire, nobody thought it was a good idea. It didn’t fit a particular genre, it had an unusual main character, and it was rejected by many publishers before finally getting published and going on to sell 8 million copies, and spawning 9 follow-on books in the series. Write the book you want to read.
2) Write every day; don’t write every day. Stephen King and others often talk about how they have to write every single day. Holidays, weekends, they can’t not write. So it was interesting to hear Anne Rice say that she doesn’t write every day. In fact, she spends a lot of time doing research, reading everyday thrillers and watching TV. But when she’s ready to write, she is obsessive and productive. She wrote the 372-page Interview with the Vampire in only five weeks. Later she wrote 1,500 pages in 5 months.
3) Writing novels gets harder, not easier. This was a big surprise to me. Every author said their easiest and fastest books were their early ones, when they didn’t know what they were doing and it could just pour out. As they’ve became better writers, it became a slower process and they spend more time on draft one catching their mistakes. Author Michael Palmer said he keeps two signs displayed on his desk, “This is Hard” and “Be Fearless”.
4) Keep a lot of white space on the page (Avery Ames). If you want readers to keep reading, keep the pacing fast. Daryl Gerber, who writes as Avery Ames, said long blocky paragraphs usually means you’re breaking the “show don’t tell” rule and that quick back and forth dialogue is a key to an engaging story.
5) Leave out the backstory; put in the backstory. I thought it was interesting that the writers were split on this point. Many said the backstory is something the author needs to know, but the reader really never needs to know. If it’s introduced at all, don’t do it until mid-way through the book. However, Anne Rice and some others said that increasingly readers want to know all about their characters and want to know details that might not be relevant to story at hand.
6) Replace “he said, she said” with physical movement. Instead of having dialog bounce back and forth with he said and she said, have the characters doing something physical and describe the physical movements and accomplishments as a way to tag the dialog.
7) “Your protagonist and antagonist don’t know when they’re in the middle of the story,” Patrick Lee said. This comment got a lot of laughs in response to a question about how do you get through the “muddling middle.” Most writers know that basic story structure includes character development and the inciting incident at the beginning of the story, and a dramatic face-off and problem solving at the end. But how do you keep readers turning pages in the “muddling middle”? Lee made the point that his characters don’t know they are in the middle. He said they should be doing everything they can to end the story on the very next page, but of course they are foiled time and again until the final act.
8) The best way to sell more copies of your current book is to write your next book (Michael Palmer). This is advice I’ve been hearing from a lot of the indie authors, too. Do you need to spend time on Twitter and Facebook and do signings and hand out bookmarks and on and on? Maybe. But Michael said nothing builds your fan base like having another book come out. Keep writing.
9) “Just write one page a night,” Michael Palmer. Michael is a practicing physician and busy Dad. He said when he started his first book, he would just sit down at his typewriter late at night, and bang out a page. Even at that slow pace, you will soon have yourself a book.