For Writers – Lessons Learned

by | Jul 21, 2019 | Karna Small Bodman, The Writer's Life | 5 comments

Posted by Karna Small Bodman

We Rogues have been telling you about Thrillerfest, the great conference of the International Thriller Writers Organization recently concluded at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. Building on K.J. Howe’s summary of the highlights, I thought I would share a few tips I gathered in some of the panels and talks given by bestselling authors.  First we had headliner, John Sandford, the pen name (his grandmother’s maiden name) of Pulitzer Price Winning Journalist, John Camp.

Author John Sandford 

 John emphasized the importance of creating memorable characters who grow and change.  “Character is key!” When you admire, identify with, or fall in love with a certain character, you will undoubtedly keep buying books in a series. John has now written 29 thrillers featuring Lucas Davenport as he tracks down various villains in the “Prey” series.  The author uses a clever way to remind his readers that these books feature Lucas by having the word Prey in each title, such as Silent Prey, Winter Prey, Night Prey. Two of the books in this series, Mind Prey and Certain Prey were made into TV movies, the latter starring Mark Harmon (of NCIS fame) which had the highest ratings for the year. His new thriller is  Neon Prey where his continuing character, Lucas, is described in the New York Times Book Review as “an inspired creation.”  

Besides creating a memorable character, former ITW President and bestselling author, Steve Berry told us about the importance of the setting. He wants to transport his readers to new, often exotic locations, and he travels to many of these locales to do extensive research for his thrillers which

have been translated into 40 languages with 25 million copies sold in 51 countries. Steve loves history. His stories not only feature a great continuing character, Cotton Malone, but make us “feel” we are right there in cities where we can absorb the sights, smells, sense of tension, and mood of the people — things you simply never “get” on Google Earth.  A perfect example is Steve’s new thriller, Malta Exchange, with settings on that island where a Cardinal has fled in search of a Vatican document that dates back to the 4th century and Constantine the Great….a perfect combination of continuing character, fabulous setting and ancient history.

In another panel I heard bestselling author Ted Bell talk about settings as well.  On his many travels he told us he often asks taxi drivers, “What is the strangest thing that ever happened to you?” And he gets a ton of incredible responses.  As for his thrillers featuring, Alex Hawke, the author takes him on whirlwind tours from Siberia to Switzerland, LA to London, Bermuda to France, but also hot spots like Moscow where Vladimir Putin enters the scene in the latest thriller, Overkill.  The story begins in the Swiss Alps high above St. Moritz where hero Alex is on a ski-vacation when his young son is snatched by unknown villains.  As for Putin, Ted said that since his novels haven’t been banned in Russia, perhaps Putin is reading them and figuring they are okay.  Ted’s fans call his Alex Hawke stories better than okay as they have regularly landed on the New York Times bestselling list.

Besides gleaning advice from the best authors in the business, I attended a most interesting talk about the how and why books are sold. I learned that over one million books are published each year, one-third are sold in stores, but the rest are purchased online (mainly from Amazon, of course).  The speaker said the 3 keys to book sales are Discovery, Conversion and Availability.  Discovery is the marketing that publishers and authors do for a new release: ads, social media, reviews, interviews, book tours. BUT those efforts alone won’t increase book sales unless there is conversion….meaning, the reader sees or hears about a new title but then must convert that impression into action. So it needs a message to lure new readers. For example, covers that “intrigue” a buyer. Effective examples are titles that make a buyer wonder about the action inside. Instead of a title such as The Pretty Girl, the more successful title would be Girl in Cabin 13 — which makes the potential buyer wonder what happens in that cabin. Also, a one line description of the story at the bottom of the cover, such as the one appearing on the Ted Bell book above: “An Ian-Fleming-esque romp of a spy thriller” can help lure a book buyer.  Finally, you have Availability – meaning it must be readily available in bookstores or online. A reader shouldn’t have to wait more than a day or two to begin reading your book.

Bottom line for authors: While conjuring up your next (thrilling) plot, endeavor to create a character so intriguing, complete with features, flaws and perhaps a dose of flamboyance, that readers will devour your story and anxiously wait for the next one; place your character and your villains in unique, even exotic settings, add a dose of history and research so your reader “learns” while enjoying the ride; and above all, read books by the masters and hopefully attend next year’s Thrillerfest.  Now, who are some of YOUR favorite characters in series you have read, along with the most engaging settings you have enjoyed? Share your thoughts in a comment below. And thanks for joining us here on Rogue Women Writers.

….Karna Small Bodman

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  1. Chris Goff

    Wow, I learned a few things. Who are some of my favorite authors? The list is long, but one in the spy thriller genre is Alex Berenson's John Wells. There's a reason he won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and hit the New York Time's bestsellers list. I, too, had a great time at ThrillerFest, spending time with some of my favorite writers. I recommend going to anyone who can.

  2. Robin Burcell

    I'm not sure I could list fave authors. It's usually the one I'm reading and enjoying at the moment. But like Chris, I love Alex Berenson's John Wells. His first book was breathtaking–in an edge of your seat way! Nice roundup of bestseller tips, though, Karna!

  3. Gayle Lynds

    What a fun trip through some terrific presentations, Karna. Such great advice you chose to pass on! Thanks!

  4. Lisa Black

    I think I like characters that are a little like me but better—they can’t be too awesome, because that makes me feel inadequate, but they can’t be a complete basket case either because then I feel a little impatient. My favorite character in recent memory is the protagonist in The Marsh King’s daughter by Karen Dionne.

  5. Jamie Freveletti

    I love John Sandford's books, but never read the Prey series but instead started with the newer Virgil Flowers series. He's a friendly guy who works for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and is an unusual and quirky character, but also friendly. If you like Sandford, it's well worth trying this series!