10 Tips from Top Thriller Writers

by | Jan 29, 2020 | Liv Constantine, On writing | 7 comments

I remember when Valerie and I  first decided to write together, the first thing I did was to go out and buy a book on how to write a novel. Since then, we’ve both joined writers’ groups, taken craft classes and attended conferences. We found ourselves hungry for those kernels of wisdom that would help us to unlock the secret to good writing. We’ve found the writing community to be not only encouraging and supportive but generous in sharing the helpful things they’ve learned along the way.
We were lucky enough to grab a few minutes with these bestselling authors who write books that readers devour. They share their best writing advice here:
“Never write what you know.  Instead, write what you love.  If what you know and what you love are the same thing, great.  But, if not, always chose the one you love.”
—Steve Berry

“I love reading crime fiction and I always have. I think the best advice I could ever give to a young novelist who is starting out, or an old one, is to write the kind of novel you want to read.”
Karin Slaughter

“The act of sitting down to write a novel is a deeply personal one. It’s an act of faith and of pure giving. Write from your center, about people who move and involve you. Be inside the story, feeling it, living it — because that’s where you want your readers to be when they open the cover. And when you come up for air, read books that transport and inspire you to recharge your writer batteries. Because all writers are readers first, that’s where we fall in love with story and find the urge to tell our own.”
Lisa Unger

“One of the best nuggets of advice we received early on was that sometimes you need to slow down a scene in order to build the tension. Our instincts were to speed up dramatic scenes, but we realized that in order to draw out a reader’s experience and emotions, it is far better to slowly unfurl these moments. This was truly a lightbulb moment, and we remind ourselves of this particular element of writing every time we tackle scenes that we want to feel like nail-biters.”
Sarah Pekkanen & Greer Hendricks

“Study and learn story structure. Then put your butt in the chair every day and work to get better.”
—Robert Dugoni

“First, think about the English language — if you’re writing, you’re a writer! Then, of course, you must decide in what direction you want to go with your writing. Of course, craft! It’s great to learn, and we can always learn more. Criticism is great when it’s constructive, but remember,  we’re in a subjective field, and always think about your story or your point. I think that conferences are amazing, but always go with a filter. Some things will work for one person and not another, so seep in all that you can that will work for you, and gently let go of that which will not. And remember, if seven people read your story, one may not embrace your characters while another may love them, but find the plot convoluted, and others may love it as it is. Think about constructive criticism, and then remember–it’s your story!”
Heather Graham

“Don’t fall in love with your first draft. You’ll be tempted to. All of us are. Instead, set it aside and look at it later with more objective eyes. Then, as tough as it might be, take the time to revise in the pursuit of excellence as a show of respect for your readers. It won’t be easy, but the truth is, if you like long hours in solitude, emotional turmoil, constant self-criticism and bouts of heart-wrenching disappointment, you’ll make a good writer. That’s what it’s going to take. And if you can actually tell an engaging story, well, you might just make a great one.”
Steven James

“My best advice to those in the early stages or aspiring to break through into the business are three things: patience, rewrite, and outline. Patience, in that the urge to rush your story both within the book and on the business side too, forces a story out ahead of itself and maybe into an agent’s hands too soon. You generally get one crack at things. Rewrite, akin to patience, to hammer out over constant repetition those clunky phrasings, those scenes that don’t’ quite work those “sexy” clues or reveals which seem so seamless but many times don’t’ come out till the third or fourth draft. And outline. Have a roadmap for where your plot is going. For where you are going to end up. Learn to get your arms around your own story.  You can still change it organically, but it is always best, especially in my view, for the author to be in control.”
Andrew Gross

“Read everything and anything that interests you, especially in your genre. Understand the publishing business so you know how to position your work when pitching agents and/or editors. Become part of a writing community, especially within your genre – attend conferences, book events for other authors, and just reach out through social media.”—Wendy Walker

“When I hit a writing roadblock, I remind myself that conflict–the engine that keeps thrillers flying–is a result of decisions. And that decisions create action. So I ask myself: what does my character really want? How far will they go to get it? What will they decide to do to make it happen?  Then I think: who’s trying to stop them? What will they do about that decision? And then the story takes off.
Hank Phillippi Ryan 

What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten on writing? 

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Karna Bodman

    What a great collection of advice from the best in the business! I especially appreciated Steve Berry's line about writing what you love (not necessarily what you know) and Karen Slaughter's suggestion to write the kind of book YOU would like to read. As for some of the best advice I've received is, "You never fail until you quit." Thanks for gathering all of these insights!

  2. Lisa Black

    All of these tips are spot on! I often give the inverse of Karin's advice: Read the kind of books you want to write.
    I also identify with Andrew's because patience is hard. After a certain point I just want to shove a book off my desk and rest my brain, so it's taken me a long time to fall in love with rewriting. But in my current work in progress, I'm finally seeing the true beauty of it.

  3. Jamie Freveletti

    These tips are great! Every writer here made me think: and like the idea of slowing down a moment rather than speeding it up. Is counter intuitive for thriller writers when dealing with action sequences but is spot on. Great post and thanks to the writers who contributed!

  4. Chris Goff

    I have two tips that I was given. One I can't remember who told me, but when I was struggling with my antagonist, I was told, "Just remember, your antagonist is the hero of his own story." When I keep that in mind, my villains become more human. The other was from a romance writer, Lee Karr. She published Harlequin Intrigues. But she told me, "Dialogue must always do one of five things: Advance the plot, characterize the characters, create suspense and intensify the conflict, reveal motivation or control the pace. If you make sure your dialogue does two out of five, you will never write chit-chat again."

  5. Gayle Lynds

    Such writerly wisdom in one blog! Thank you for sharing! ♥

  6. Robin Burcell

    Wonderful advice! Thanks for gathering them all together in one spot! I want to give a shout out to Heather's, as it's particularly insightful for the new writer. It's so easy to get lost in all the advice at a workshop, then want to apply everything. Great nuggets all the way around. I'm going back to re-read this!

  7. Tracey Devlyn

    Such wonderful gems – thank you! Susan Elizabeth Phillips mentioned that, when she's stuck, she'll pull out a yellow pad of paper and freehand her thoughts until something clicks. This tactic turned out to be a real game changer for me. There's something about seeing my hand write the words–or map out different scenarios–that gels with the creative side of my brain. Now, rather than notepads, I use my reMarkable. Love it!