Wednesday, July 18, 2012

3 Must-Read Books On the Craft of Writing Mystery, Suspense & Thrillers

Although I'm not new to the publishing world, I am very much new to the suspense/thriller genre. Just after I finished writing The Seven Year Itch: A J.J. McCall Novel and started getting feedback from the Beta readers, I realized I might have some major revisions. While the readers said they "love, love, love" the story and couldn't wait for the next installment (and one of the Beta readers didn't know me), an agent had a less than pleasing reaction. He said that it was well written but it didn't have the same feel that other books of this ilk usually have. And so I really took some time to chew on his comments.

Fact of the matter is, I'd never written one. And understand that as someone who works in the law enforcement business, it is very difficult to read some thrillers, not because they aren't wonderful, entertaining books that shouldn't be on the NY Times Bestseller list, but because of the "eye-roll" factor. I can't tell you how many times it makes my eye-roll when people write FBI and CIA characters who operate so much differently from the people you've worked side by side with for almost 20 years. I can't control the "eye-roll" and it's hard to find books that don't make that happen. So, I can't say I'm a carnivorous consumer of the genre. But when I do find one that I like...I really like it. I just couldn't always figure out the why?

Why did the book draw me in? Why did I keep turning the pages? Why did I stay up until three am when I knew I had to get up at 5? Whyyyyy?

I'd written romantic comedies and romance novels that were page-turners but the stories were far less complex, involved fewer characters and they were written in first-person. If a reader empathizes and connects with the character, it's not hard to figure out why they want to find out what happened to them.

In this case, I couldn't write the book in first-person to get that connection so I had to figure out another way to make the story work. At first I was determined to "figure it out" on my own, doing several blind revisions based on the less than an ounce of knowledge I had about writing these kinds of novels.


After that didn't work, I decided to get some help from the experts. I bought just about every book on writing mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels that I could find and read all of them within a few days. Maybe a week. What I didn't know about the craft could fill Yankee Stadium. LOL  I had no idea how clueless I really was. Sometimes, you can't (and shouldn't) just wing it. Sometimes you need a little guidance to lead you in the right direction. Here are the books that gave me the most effective advice.

This was a really good book. I thought it might be a little dry and tough to choke down but I was very wrong. Entertaining and informative (or the other way around), this is well worth the money. It really hammered home the idea of ensuring each scene has some conflict. If everything is going your main character's way, there is no suspense. No, for the better part of your story, things my not go well. Even if there are small victories, the big ones must not be one until the end.

If there was one book that kind of hammers home the lessons of the above AND goes more into detail about the chapter and book structure AND characterization, this is probably it. I would recommend this book if your book buying budget is tight and you could only buy one. The tone is entertaining. The voice isn't preachy. It's a really nice easy read and I finished it in about a day. this isn't EXACTLY a book on the thriller writing craft per se. This is actually a book on writing screenplays if you didn't know. But what I loved about this is that he gives a great lesson how to make your unlikable heroes and heroines likeable. For example, why do we love bad guys like in the Oceans movies? Okay besides George Clooney. And Brad Pitt. And, well, need I go on? But the point is that these are people who steal for a living. So why do we connect with the characters, particularly Ocean, who has orchestrated this whole deal. Midway into the movie we find out he has a more noble mission--to save the wife he loves from a man who doesn't really love her so that he can love her. From that point on you're  totally rooting for the success of the heist--a crime. Save.The.Cat.

So these are my must-reads on craft. I bought a few others but these are the ones that really stood out as helping me make the best revisions.

What books on craft have helped you write/revise your story?

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