ThrillerFest VI: How To Become a Thriller Writer in 13 Easy Lessons

Sponsored by International Thriller Writers (ITW), an 1600-plus-member organization embracing authors of both fiction and nonfiction, ThrillerFest is a four-day extravaganza offering dozens of workshops on the craft of thriller writing, plus opportunities to meet agents and editors, mingle with colleagues, and attend interviews with stars of the genre. This year’s event, held July 6‚ 9 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York and the sixth annual fest, was notable for both the generosity of the participants (debut author Paul McEuen, a Cornell physics professor, said he’d never met such a wonderful group) and the sheer amount of guidance provided. Among its goals, ITW aims to bring together high-profile authors with newer ones in search of mentoring, and in this regard ThrillerFest VI succeeded in spades. For Thriller Award winners, check out this news story; the Debut Authors Class of 2010/2011 gets coverage of its own. Meanwhile, here’s a sort of battle plan for writing a thriller that one might draw from this year’s comments.

  1. You can get an idea anywhere. As James Rollins observed in his interview with 2011 ThrillerMaster R.L. Stine, writers hate nothing more than being asked where they get their ideas, as if thinking up a book were some magical task that distinguishes its creator from the rest of the human species. A half-amused, half-exasperated Stine agreed; we all get ideas, whether from what we remember or what we see or what we imagine. The Goosebumps author acknowledged that fans who ask him this question are generally youngsters worried about their next school paper, so he’s posted on his website a teacher’s guide to the idea hunt. Adults don’t have such guides, but in his own session, Crafting a Thriller from Alpha to Omega, Michael Palmer reminded attendees that ideas can come from almost any place. A journal article on zombi poison inspired Palmer’s Extreme Measures, for instance, and once when he was fishing for ideas his son told him to write about nanotechnology.
  2. But don’t fall for trends. Addressing the ITW Debut Authors Class of 2010/2011, 2011 Silver Bullet Award recipient (and maven) Karin Slaughter allowed that she has no idea how to write a best seller. All you can do is write your best book, she said, and sometimes that’s not enough. If sales are your benchmark you’ll never feel successful. So don’t go looking for the latest wave to carry you to some golden shore; as Slaughter insisted, it never works to think trendy. Instead, consider what really sets you on fire and write what you want to know.
  3. Keep it fresh. Spotlight Guest Robert Crais noted that in every thriller since the genre’s invention the protagonist must solve a problem; it’s just the clothes that have changed. (Said Stine, Our fears don’t change, only the clothes and the technology.) But remember, whatever problem you start with‚ and how many problems have never been done before?‚ you’ve got to invest it with fresh, new detail and make it your own. Otherwise, you risk irritating 2009 ThrillerMaster David Morrell, who expressed concern about the genre’s repeating tropes in an interview with Steve Berry; as he noted, most authors have careers lasting only 15 to 20 years (compared with his nearly 40) because they find a good thing and keep at it; it gets boring for the reader and the writer. So go out there and create new worlds, and while you’re at it try different things for fun. If you flip genres, Morrell advised, fans won’t follow you from genre to genre, but you will love it.
  4. Know your sensibility. Or find your voice. Or to thine own self be true. However you phrase it, all it takes is a writing workshop like Heather Graham’s Where Do You Get Your Ideas, in which attendees joined in groups to whip up a paragraph or synopsis later shared with everyone, to understand that different writers can feel their way quite differently through the same material. Given a handful of characters and the sentence The blood, deep, red, and viscous, ran down the mirror, group members batted about scenarios from the gritty to the blackly humorous to the literary/intellectual (entailing political or medical malfeasance). No need to crunch too many bones if you’d rather be crunching numbers in a financial thriller; there’s room for everyone. As Lisa Gardner noted (Is There Equal Opportunity Among Women Thriller Writers?), the smart way to sort writers today would not be by the outmoded distinction of gender‚ is Sarah Paretsky marketed as a woman thrillmeister?‚ but by sensibility.
  5. Ask a question‚ and then answer it. Palmer recommended a great way to concentrate one’s thoughts at the beginning of a project. First, formulate a What if? question. (What if there were a powerful substance that could make someone look dead?) Then answer it. (That substance could be used to remove people‚ the homeless?‚ from society for the purposes of experimentation.) In each case, a pithy 25-word-or-under summation will do the trick, wonderfully focusing the mind while working overtime as an agent pitch or cocktail-party starter. Palmer calls the answer developing the McGuffin, referencing that device beloved of Alfred Hitchcock that serves underhandedly to drive the plot. And what thriller writer wouldn’t want to follow Hitchcock?
  6. Figure out how you write. Stine plans everything in advance: then I can relax and enjoy the writing. Ditto for Crais, a former TV screenwriter who thought that writing a novel would be more loosey-goosey, a sort of fugue state with drifting mind and rolling eyes. After a couple of disappointing attempts, he realized that assiduous outlining worked best for him. Not so for Diana Gabaldon, another Spotlight Guest, who skips not just the outline but the very idea of linearity, instead writing in bits or pieces‚Ķthat gradually accrete into larger chunks, allowing her to see connections and fill in gaps. Spotlight Guest John Lescroat works scene by scene, making sure that something happens in each, while Steve Berry (How Do You Balance Suspense and Historical Detail?) starts fat and gets leaner, returning to strip his narrative of all but the essentials so that the eye can move quickly down the page. Fellow panelist David Liss lets some of the fat stay‚ Dan Brown‚ style short-short chapters be damned‚ so that he can effectively convey the sense of time and place that grounds his financial historicals. But he is careful not to overexplain the money angle. Hey, whatever works for you.
  7. Do the research, but don’t let it show. Research makes a book come alive while distinguishing it from similar titles, noted Katherine Neville, Historical Detail panel master. It can also be used to build character and make a setting more real, as 2010 ThrillerMaster Ken Follett explained in How Thrillers Work (see No. 10, Raise Your Game). So do your homework. Read up on your topic, sit shivering in the cathedral until you’re clear on the details, consult museum curators and other experts (they love to help, but call in advance), and, though you won’t always know exactly what you’re looking for, plan fact-finding trips carefully so you don’t waste time wandering about. If you don’t have a travel budget, old travel guides (for historicals) and Google Earth can be invaluable; skip them, and you might erroneously put an island off the east coast of Scotland, as Follett confessed to having done in an early book. But whatever you do, don’t use the details you glean unless they enhance plot, character, or mood, and use just enough to make your point; two perfect sentences beat out a rambly two paragraphs any day.
  8. Characters matter. Thrillers are all about action, right? Actually, no; the suspense goes nowhere unless we’re worried about someone on the page. We read because we are led to care about the characters, said Palmer, who puts character before plot. Crais, who builds all his characters from bits and pieces of himself (You hope you can touch other people that way), has created a moving, resilient, and remarkably evenhanded relationship between protagonists Elvis Cole and Joe Pike that should inspire younger writers. In every novel, something personal is at stake for this duo, which clearly emerges in the outlining process. For Crais, it’s that all-important human hook.
  9. Nail your tone from the get-go. When Morrell began writing, he was advised to take on a little project: read the first page of every thriller he could find. As he reported, 95 of 100 titles sounded as if they were written by the same person. The authors were just imitating the tone of what they thought a book should be. Not only did those writers fail the vital Keep it fresh and Know your sensibility tests, but they were also forgetting the cardinal importance of establishing their presence upfront. Your first sentence is an invitation to the world you have created, observed Morrell. Get it right, and not only will the writing be easier, with the rest of the novel unfolding naturally, but you’ll grab readers immediately‚ and they won’t be so likely to let go.
  10. Raise your game. While curiosity drives mysteries, thrillers are all about danger, advised Follett in a Thursday morning talk. (For the corpse in a mystery, the danger is past.) So raise your game by intensifying the anxiety that danger provokes, focusing on four key areas: research, character, stakes, and plot. Fascinating research details distract the reader’s mind from the thriller’s essential implausibility while also revealing character (I think Larsson missed a beat; he should have told us how Lisbeth Salander felt about her laptop). Revealing the protagonist’s vulnerabilities and how others see him‚ the role of romance and family in a thriller‚ helps readers invest in the character. High stakes make for high tension: it’s better when the hero is fighting for a greater cause. And simple plot devices‚ changing pace, imposing a deadline, putting in mystery (which allows the hero to be clever as well as tough)‚ can bring you to the top of your game.
  11. Publishing has changed, so get with the program. Never mind that the big, corporatized houses are floundering, their business model having crashed and burned, with the remains now being swept away by the ebook tsunami. As Morrell proclaimed, There’s never been a better time for writers. Exciting opportunities are constantly arising, with many writers now opting to self-publish, explore online possibilities, or go with collectives or with smaller houses that serve as new, improved versions of publishing’s behemoths. Meanwhile, social media have changed how author and reader relate. It’s a fragmented world, said editor Dan Slater (What’s First, the Chicken or the Egg? Alternatives to Traditional Publishing), but social media allow authors to reach niches, to access and engage their audience and to grow it. Just remember, even if you choose a new way to present your books‚ they’re not alternatives to publishing, said’s Steve Feldberg, it’s all publishing now‚ your role as author has changed, regardless. Now a big part of your job is to market yourself.
  12. But remember that publishing is still a business. Yes, you’ve got to develop your pitches. Yes, you’ve got to learn to follow your editor’s directives. Yes, you’ve got to work gracefully in partnership with your publisher’s staff. It’s all about relationships, said Slaughter. Develop them‚ and always comport yourself in a business-like way.
  13. Work, read, socialize. No, that’s not a prescription for good living; it’s the best way to achieve your dream of becoming the next ThrillerMaster or Spotlight Guest. Writing is roll-up-your-sleeves difficult and takes commitment; said Palmer, long a full-time physician and now associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society Physician Health Program, practicing medicine has nothing on the rigors of producing a novel. Reading isn’t just entertaining but enriching, helping you to understand the nuances of your genre‚ and your contract. And don’t forget to talk to your colleagues; the thriller community is heartfelt and sustaining, and you’ll never be in better company.
Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.