Monday, November 29, 2010

Three Excellent Plots

So, as promised, here are three plots that TG liked in the last year. This doesn't mean the resulting books were necessarily that fabulous, just that the plots had a lot of promise. Please don't write TG that you went out and bought the books and were disappointed. It's plots were talking about here, people, not execution.

Just to recap. For those of you who have not read the previous two entries (shame!) they focused on Clive Cussler and son and their process of coming up with mind-stretching plots. TG's method of plotting usually consists of discovering an interesting historical event and then writing fiction around that event. (See his alter ego's Pastmaster, time travel series starring historian Alex Balfour.) The Cussler's approach seems to come up with several historical events and then find ways to connect them. They certainly didn't invent this method (though on giving it two seconds of thought, TG wonders if Cussler wasn't right there on the cutting edge of this tactic, at least as it applies to thrillers?) But the connection system, even though it can produce excellent results, seems forced to TG at times. As if those employing it are trying not to just find interesting events that can lead to a connection, but to find two events that are so radically different from each other that to connect them shows brilliance on the part of the writers. Which is not the same as brilliance on the page. And now, TG fears he has strayed too far into what his wife, in commenting on these pages, calls “inside baseball.”

And so, without further ado, three interesting plot ideas:

Venom, by Joan Brady. A new species of honey bee produces a venom that turns out to lead to a serum that cures radioactive poisoning. Bad guys are testing it on unsuspecting residents near Chernobyl. This is a sequel to Brady's Bleedout. Brady can write well, very well, but regular thriller readers used to non-stop action will find it kind of slow. But the whole deal with the bees is cool. Who could have thought of such a thing?

The Capitol Game, Brian Haig. A company discovers a polymer that when painted on military vehicles cloaks them with an invisible barrier that is impenetrable to enemy firepower. A kind of Armor in a Can. The book is not about the polymer, but the predatory companies who seek to own the process and market it. It's a financial thriller, and a damn good one, but TG would have gone with the implications of the polymer under combat conditions. In the hands of one of the genre's military practitioners who specialize in military action, this could have led to terrific battle scenes. Haig, son of former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, usually concentrates on his wisecracking series hero, JAG lawyer Sean Drummond, and his adventures as a military lawyer. Here he seems to be setting up a new series.

The Cobra, Frederick Forsyth. The U.S. president, disgusted by the horrors wrought by illegal drug trafficking, decides to bring the entire weight and resources of the federal government to bear against the international cocaine trade. The first, and most crucial step, is to declare drug traders and their cartels to be terrorists, subjecting them to new and extensive legal procedures that the government can employ under those conditions. Then he brings in ex-CIA director Paul Devereaux to head the team that will implement the effort. Devereaux, known as The Cobra from his operations days, is old school – smart, ruthless, unrelenting, and bestowed by the president with free rein to call in any arm of the government to support the effort to crush the cartels and their leaders. Forsyth lays out how it would all work, and readers will follow eagerly along, always thinking, yes, why the hell don't they do this in real life? Sadly, Forsyth supplies a convincing answer to that question as well. Many readers might be under the impression Forsyth was dead. After all he's the guy who wrote The Day of the Jackal, which pretty much invented the modern thriller, but no, thankfully, he's still alive and working at the top of his game

There you go. See, it is possible to come up with a new idea. Get to work.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More on Cussler and Killer Plots

Over at the excellent mystery and writing blog Murderati, Pari Noskin Taichert interviews Dirk Cussler who talks about how he got into writing, how he works with his father and what he thinks makes a good thriller. TG recommends heading over there for a read not only of this interview, but of the blog in general.

The Cussler's latest book is Crescent Dawn. TG reviewed this book and was decidedly underwhelemed. While TG likes much of Clive's work -- the man certainly deserves the Thriller Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement – but Crescent Dawn, while initially intriguing, quickly descends into an undistinguished compilation of subplots and ideas that have been around for years in one form or another, i.e. the Church of England attempting to hide details of the life of Christ; (at least it wasn't the Vatican) ships laden with explosives headed toward familiar targets; an attack on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (snore) and others. One has to wonder if the Cusslers have fallen into the trap that snares so many thriller writers today -- not keeping up with what other writers in the genre are doing. But realistically, TG has to ask if a writer was as successful as these two guys, father and son, are, would you be spending your time reading the work of others? Especially if your readers didn't seem to care? If it were TG, he would be driving fast cars, diving the seas, drinking, eating at fabulous restaurants, buying his wife expensive baubles and generally living the good life someplace warm. Which is probably what the Cussler's do with their well-earned cash. But that's the subject of another blog.

When asked about Crescent Dawn, Dirk describes it thusly on Murderati:

As with most of the Pitt books, a historical element provided inspiration for the story. In this case, there were actually two events. I became interested in the loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire, a British cruiser that sank under mysterious circumstances in World War I, while transporting Lord Kitchener to a secret meeting with the Russian Czar. Dozens of rumors and theories abounded after the sinking, including speculation that the ship was sunk by the IRA or even the British government, rather than a suspected German U-boat. It all seemed to me like good fodder for a fictional sub-plot. At the same time, Clive was intrigued by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who traveled to Jerusalem in 327 A.D. to search for relics of Christianity. The trick was then to tie the two events into a contemporary-staged thriller.”

TG finds several points of interest here. The loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire with Kitchener aboard is an interesting plot device, one which has been explored before but still remains a fresh subject for thriller writers. Then there's his father's interest in early roman relics of Christianity. These relics (paintings of Jesus, the writings of Jesus, etc.) are a mainstay of religious conspiracy thrillers and are becoming pretty shopworn, which is one of the reasons TG found the book unoriginal, which is not a word one often uses in the same paragraph with Clive Cussler. What is instructive here is the way the two men took two wildly dissimilar topics and set about finding a way to bring them together. TG will now define this as the Seven Degrees of Separation for Developing Plots. The linking of two disparate plot ideas in the same way it is possible to connect Kevin Bacon with any other human in the world. All one needs to do this is to sit down with a pal, set a bottle of booze on the table along with two shot glasses and get to work. Don't forget pen and paper to take notes; trust TG, you're going to need them.

Taichert asked several other questions that are of interest to TG and the readers of this blog:

What's the division of labor? “
Most of our joint work is at the front end. We'll meet together regularly over the course of several weeks to kick around plot ideas and then hash out an outline. Once that is set, then I'll go off and do the bulk of the actual writing, with my father editing along the way. I would say the challenges of working together are few, beyond the normal struggles of writing a book. It's a real pleasure picking the brains of my father, however, as his creativity seems to have no bounds.

What do you think are the essential elements of good storytelling? “
I might say that the three C's of Character, Conflict, and Compulsion are at the heart of any good story. Writing action adventure tales, we don't necessarily delve too deeply into the psyche of the characters, but it's always important that the reader can empathize with one or more of the main figures. Some measure of action is required, typically driven by a conflict or odyssey of some sort that leads the characters forward, either physically or mentally. And it all must be done in a compelling manner that keeps the reader turning the pages, be it by mood, dialogue, style elements, or the conflict or action itself.”

Add Dirk's Three C's to TG's Four B's and you've got the basic formulae for developing a winning thriller. Now just make sure you're reading what others are writing so you don't bore TG with shopworn retreads. Oops, TG has run out of space once again.

Next: Those three new interesting plots that TG keeps promising.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Old Plots, New Plots

This turned out to be a long entry so Thriller Guy is going to break it up into two. He'll be putting the other half up in a few days.

TG has spoken many times about the difficulties in coming up with great plot ideas. Oh, how many times have the Little Ones gathered at his knee and pleaded, (pled?) “Oh, TG, tell us your secret, how can we too come up with killer plot ideas?” Constant readers of TG's thoughts know that he is a big fan of Gin when it comes this question, and he ascribes to the Four Bs of Creative Cognition – that's Bed, Bath, Beach and Bus – which are great places for ideas to suddenly spring into one's head. Don't forget to keep that notebook somewhere close so when brilliance strikes in the middle of the night you can get up and write your brainstorms down. If any of you pros out there would like to share your secrets vis-a-vis plot concoction, send them in and Thriller Guy will post them for the edification of us all.

TG reads a ton of books, and most of them are running through the same old plots, mash-ups and ripoffs. As he pointed out in last week's entry, he is heartily sick of Da Vinci Code imitators and all their secret codes and other paraphernalia. TG understands that there is a solid core of readers who love this sub genre and he is happy to point them to the best (and warn them away from the worst) of this material, because that's TG's job, but personally, he's mighty tired of these books. Most of the military adventure genre are still cranking out copies of Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, although the spy books are being refreshed by a new bunch of British writers who are using terrific writing to reestablish themselves as the heirs to not only le Carre (though le Carre is still writing beautifully) but all the other classic espionage guys.

But instead of continuing to rail against the paucity of today's plots, TG is going to reprise an old plot and give you some new ones he likes over the last year's reading.

Clive Cussler used to be the master of the over-the-top, bizarro plot. He's still cranking them out (plots, that is) but back in the day when he was probably still actually writing his own books he really stretched the limits of credulity, even when most readers are/were happy to suspend their disbelief. Take for example, the plot of Cussler's 1992 Sahara. Click here if you really want a long Wikipedia dissection of this complicated plot, but let TG summarize...

It's 1865 and the Confederate ship CSS Texas takes on a special prisoner and fights her way out through a Union blockade. Flash forward to 1931 when Kitty Mannock is flying over the Sahara in an attempt to set a new aviation record. She crashes into the dessert and records in her diary finding an “odd ship in the sand.” Enter Cussler hero Dirk Pitt (still going strong today) who is in Egypt searching for the source of a strange pollutant that is causing an overgrowth of red tide that, dare we say it, threatens the existence of the world. Much mayhem ensues as Dirk is taken captive, escapes, taken captive again, escapes again, builds a wind powered sand yacht out of pieces of Mannock's airplane, then...

OK, TG is too tired to go on. Suffice it to say that it turns out that Abraham Lincoln is the prisoner on the CSS Texas and he and the ship itself have ended up in the desert. That guy who got shot in Ford's Theatre? That was an actor who was hired by Edwin M. Stanton.

The point is, it's one hell of a plot. It must taken a serious amount of gin to come up with it. Crazy? Lincoln captured by the south and the ship carrying him away ends up in the Sahara desert? Totally whacky. But Cussler pulls it off because he's not afraid to plunge ahead in the face of believability through sheer balls and a story that refuses to slow down. Could you pull off like this today? Hard to say. Maybe. TG is happy to read what you come up with.

Next up: More about Cussler and his son and co-writer Dirk Cussler (yes, he named his kid after his series hero) and three new plots TG thinks are pretty cool.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Comments and Conundrums

OK, Thriller Guy needs to discuss some of the comments that have come in over the last few entries since he can't convince most readers to actually click on the comments button. TG made the point in the last entry that he is getting mighty sick of the same old plots, characters -- both heroic and evil – situations, geographic venues and motivations, again, both heroic and evil. Syd, from over at Scene of the Crime, comments “Problem here is lack of contact with your product area; if readers don't read a lot, they don't know they're being a copycat.” My point exactly, Syd, except I think you meant to write "writers" rather than "readers." I find this to be particularly true of our European cousins across the pond who produce thrillers that are pale imitations of American books that came out years before theirs. TG always advises that anyone who writes thrillers should read deeply in the genre if they are not intimately familiar with those who have gone before. The International Thriller Writers have a good book titled Thrillers: 100 Must Reads that anyone wanting to work the genre should study, and yes, they should read all 100 thrillers recommended therein. Patrick Anderson, the Thriller reviewer for the Washington Post has an excellent book, The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction that gives a solid history of the backlist with many examples that should be read. It would seem that anyone with a modicum of intelligence would understand that this sort of research would be just as important as making sure you get the caliber of the weapon correct, but TG has to say that this is, sadly, not the case. And, in fact, he's going to go out on a limb here (one of his favorite places to be) and say that it seems like these European writers seem to take a particular satisfaction in being uninformed. That they somehow feel as if they are so good they don't need to bother with what the provincials have done. Not the British writers, but those on the continent. So keep it up, fellows, and you'll keep on receiving those reviews from TG that point out your utter lack of originality.
On this same topic, Anonymous comments on this entry as well: “The bigger question is: why do publishers pay authors to write this stuff? We know that good writing seems to pass the publishers by – is the “sameness” and “familiarity” you describe required to sell a book these days? Are there any publishers reading your blog who'd care to comment?” Anyone who's been in this business very long quickly notes that most publishers are terrified to try something new and vastly prefer to crank out copies of a winning formula. The Day of the Jackal, The Silence of the Lambs and The Da Vinci Code are just three examples of books that spawned sub genres that are still selling strong today. Publishers and movie folk still like to hear their pitches refer to these sorts of progenitors, as in...”You're going to love this C.J. the show's a cross between The Da Vinci Code and Glee.” They love it because the examples are known even to them as popular hits that have made money. And making money is what they're all about. So, Anonymous, to answer your question, yes, familiarity can be a big factor in selling a book these days. Always remember that most publishers are craven, greedy corporate whores who are interested only in their bottom line. Not all of them, but most of the big ones. Though even in the big ones TG has worked with many decent, courageous editors and others who struggle against the machine to put out good, original books. Lucky is the hard-working writer who has found his or her way to one of these angels. But for the most part, they are no longer interested in a quality product, only how much money they can make. And you know what? They're probably right. TG has read many a book that is so bad that he would be ashamed to have his name anywhere near it, and these same books shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. Why? Thats a subject for another blog.
Any of you publishing professionals out there who want to take TG up on this? We'd love to hear your side.
Time for one more comment: Joel writes: “You ever think, perhaps, that you are reading too much of other people's crap and it's wreaking havoc with your own creative process?” Curiously, Joel, I don't think that is the case. The problem is that I read so much of other people's crap it discourages me to the point of giving it all up. But we've already been through that, haven't we?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pink Mist and Burritos

In Thriller Guy's last entry he asked for readers to supply some alternative to the tired cliché used to describe someone who has just been head shot: “His head disappeared into a pink mist.” How about this from a novel TG recently reviewed: “She saw his head explode like a burrito in a microwave.” A little over the top, and probably not true, but TG kinda likes it. Later on in the same book the author gives us: “His head exploded as if touched by the hand of God.” Nice. Unfortunately, the rest of the book was just rehashed thriller tropes. TG hates to say it, but he is really getting sick of reading novels that are just more the same: head shots, females in peril, the hero's family is always killed so he first quits the life, retires to a shack on the beach and lets his beard grow until he is coaxed back into service to avenge his loved ones and save America. The villains are always the same -- Arab terrorists attempting to restore the Caliphate, their families (brother, mother, father) have been killed years earlier by the Crusaders; evil industrialists who feel that America is headed down the wrong path and can only be saved by their ultra-conservative agenda, suitcase nukes (in reality the half life in these Russian bombs has run out and they are now longer workable), various bio weapons, suicide bombers, blah blah blah blah. It makes TG tired to even write such a list, which could go on and on.

Yes, it's tough coming up with an original plot. TG has faced this problem himself and recommends to those flailing about for an original premiss to just say no to writing anything until you come up with something new. If your book never gets written, then that's a plus; one more unoriginal thriller that TG doesn't have to slog through. One more bad review that TG doesn't have to write. Anyone who thinks that reviewers like to write bad reviews, that it's “fun” are sadly mistaken. Bad books are difficult to read, the pages seem endless, and saying they are bad in print always feels as if one were trampling on some writer's dreams and children. And then there is the feeling one experiences when one has, sadly, tried to warn readers away from a book only to see it rocket to the top of the best seller list. This is not in any way a new phenomena – bad books selling millions of copies – but it doesn't ever get easier to take by those who enjoy well-written books and who are paid to help others of like mind find these books and warn them away from the stinkers.

Which is why TG always tries to simply describe a book so that those who like a particular sort of book can be alerted to when one comes along. But it is a reviewer's duty, usually in the first line or two, to say whether a writer has succeeded or failed. TG tries to be helpful with his criticism; TG tries to not rub it in. But... A recent book under review featured a villain who at one point is trying to get a woman to tell him something. He tortures her for awhile. When that doesn't work (the woman doesn't know anything to tell) he pokes out the eyes of the woman's eleven year old daughter while the woman watches. Really, does anyone really need to read this sort of thing? Does this sort of heinous behavior make a reader say to himself, gee, that's really cool, this man is really bad. I love this book. But does TG's personal repugnance at this sort of overkill (pun intended) allow him to let these feelings color his review? No, it does not, but fortunately those authors who go to those lengths almost always fail in many other ways, thus garnering a poor review in any case. Yes, TG knows he has railed about this before, but it never seems to go away. Thoughts?

This weeks Gunfire Hall of Shame: “The hailstorm of automatic weapon fire that slammed into his body sent him dancing off the floor like a marionette.”