Tips from the experts

by | Mar 4, 2019 | Karna Small Bodman, On writing | 7 comments

By Karna Small Bodman 

Are you an aspiring writer, published author or avid reader who would like to know how bestselling authors create their novels? The best advice I have heard (and continue to hear) is from the pros at our annual conference of the International Thriller Writers organization called “ThrillerFest” – coming up in July at the Grand Hyatt in New York — a gathering of some 1,000 writers, readers, agents and editors.. Anyone can register on the ThrillerFest website.

Besides featuring such top authors as John Sanford, Harlan Coben, Margaret Maybury, Lisa Unger and many others who will give talks and interviews, published authors and industry professionals will be presenting workshops and panel discussions on everything from how to plot, develop heroes and villains, to creating tension and innovative  marketing techniques. I just went back to review some of the voluminous notes I’ve taken at previous conferences, so I could give you a flavor of this great gathering.
TAndrew Gross, who got his start writing with James Patterson and is now a bestselling author in his own right, gave a great workshop on “Plotting a Good Thriller.” Andy has written many thrillers as well as historical novels, including his latest, Button Man. Andy advises, “You want an ‘I couldn’t put it down’ story where something large is at stake, where bad things happen to ordinary people, and the pacing propels the narrative. In action scenes, don’t fill it with incidentals, read it out loud and eliminate excess descriptions. Start with a riveting opening and make the reader feel how the hero feels. Make me care about the characters — are they trustworthy, funny, romantic, or straining to overcome adversity? Whatever it is, make me care!” He and others say, “Have a twist at the end, but don’t rush the ending. Choreograph it well with an emotional payoff.”
Our own Rogue, Gayle Lynds, is a master at creating a riveting thriller.  Besides writing some of the Robert Ludlum books, her own story, The Assassins, is a roadmap to the creation of great villains. Gayle conducts workshops on the subject where she points out, “The villain is the hero of his own story.  He should have strength and power — don’t make fun of him, have respect for him. If you don’t, the reader won’t either.  Include some characteristic in your villain that are good.” (Remember Hannibal Lecter had good taste and Hitler liked dogs. Maybe your villain loves his mother). She goes on to advise, “The villain must be mighty in order for the hero to rise up and be heroic.” And, “The villain drives the plot in the clash with the hero.” The story can also have multiple villains, as you’ll see in The Assassins.  

When creating your characters, we are often reminded that each should have “GMC.” That means:  give every one of them a goal, motivation and conflict. Think about it, perhaps put together a list of characteristics (along with descriptions, of course) of each major player. Some authors then write an extensive outline – while others, like Lee Child, often say they would rather “wing it” and “see where my characters take me.” Whatever your writing style, after you have written your first draft, now it’s time for the editing process. And do we ever get lessons on editing from the masters as ThrillerFest.  
The late great Michael Palmer is famous for giving advice that is invaluable to writers of all genres.
Here is a summary of his advice on editing: Read it five times, take out the dead words, sprinkle in back story, don’t include too much research or “your own experience,” check the time line for realty, double check POV changes (only one character’s “point of view” should be described in any one scene), strive for technical accuracy, check your choreography, try to include references to at least two of our senses in each scene, make gestures differentiate your characters, look for awkward sentences and misplaced modifiers, avoid long paragraphs, check sentences that begin with “It” (Palmer says, “That’s kind of lazy.”). Also, avoid similar names, don’t keep repeating full names, only give names to the major characters, scour your draft for repeated words, avoid as many adverbs as possible, examine and get rid of metaphors.

As for punctuation and other specifics, he advises the author to spell out numbers. If you use abbreviations be consistent (e.g. Lt. or Dr.). Put a comma before the “and” in a sentence (e.g. He walked outside, and as he gazed at the moon he felt so alone).  Minimize or eliminate the use of ; or :  And when you are finished, be sure to add page numbers to your manuscript in the header or footer.

Okay, now the author has written and edited the manuscript, nailed down an agent and publisher (or perhaps decided to self-publish, as 1.2 million writers opted to do in 2018, according to Publishers Weekly),  how in the world does one achieve bestseller status? Since Amazon has some six million titles for sale,  the challenge is obvious.  But take heart. We’re talking about the best in the business here, right? They all have their own stories to tell about perseverance.  For example:

Steve Berry
The former President of International Thriller Writers, Steve Berry, tells aspiring writers about how he wrote novels for a decade and had some 85 rejections from various agents and editors before he nailed his first publishing contract. Today Steve is definitely a Bestselling Author with some twenty-three million books in print in fifty-one countries.

Steve is always a presenter at ThrillerFest and is one of the most encouraging people on the planet, often offering “blurbs” (cover comments) to first-time novelists.

Then there is author David Baldacci who wrote for fifteen years before his novel Absolute Power was made into a movie which propelled him to ‘bestseller-dom.” 

One line we often hear at our workshops and panels is, “You never fail until you quit.” Something else you will encounter if you decide to attend this year’s ThrillerFest, is a panel of Rogue Women Writers.  Last year our “panel master” (M.C.) was ITW’s Co-President, John Lescroart.
Rogue Women Writers Panel at Thrillerfest

This year, our panel will be handled by another “Bestselling Author” James Rollins.  We would love to see you there. 

….Submitted by Karna Small Bodman 
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  1. S. Lee Manning

    Although I will not be attending ThrillerFest this year, it is a great event. And I know the Rogue panel, as usual, will be spectacular.

  2. Lisa Black

    Conferences can be wonderful, eye-opening opportunities, and I suggest doing your homework to get the most bang for your buck. Check out where you want to be and when, who you want to meet and what want to ask them. You’ll be glad you did.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    I love all of the terrific advice you've put together here, Karna. One can never learn enough, and you're reminding all of us with that with this terrific blog. I enjoy your thrillers, too, and particularly the tremendous sense of backroom and power reality, but then you bring exceptional experience from your White House and journalist years, and the very fact that you always stay current. Oh, to have a peek at your Top Secret Rolodex! Brava!

  4. Robin Burcell

    What great advice! No matter where you are in the spectrum of writing (from aspiring to multi-published), I believe it always pays to remind yourself of good writing advice–especially from the pros. Wish I'd had a peek at this back when I first started. Glad I've had the opportunity now!

  5. Muffy Wilson

    Wonderful column, Karna. Thanks so much for putting so much into it. Great advice.

  6. Rogue Women Writers

    Appreciate these comments — S. Lee – we will miss you at ThrillerFest; Lisa you are so right about attending conferences and carefully analyzing the best speeches and workshops to attend (There are always SO many though, it's often hard to choose). And thanks for your words, Gayle…coming from the "Spay master" herself – yes, we really should compare "Top Secret" experiences!….Karna Bodman

  7. Chris Goff

    Best conference ever! Great write up, Karna.