Five Mistakes Thriller Writers Make: Number Two
Learn the Canon, Stupid
Scene: Retirement party. A roomful of men with a scattering of women. All are dressed in business attire, though a few of the more daring have removed their suit coats and rolled up their sleeves. They are drinking glasses of not particularly good Champaign. On a desk is a frosted sheet cake with the two little guys from Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy cartoon pictured in icing. The honoree, a mild looking, unassuming man, his name is Steve, please, no last names, is standing in front of his desk, holding a glass in his hand. It is a quiet moment, and he looks pensive. A colleague sidles up in front of him.
So, Steve, what’s it going to be? What are going to do now that you’re leaving us?
I’m not sure. I haven’t really given it much thought.
Hell, man, 30 years in the CIA must have left you with some marketable skills.
(He laughs and punches Steve in the chest with a meaty forefinger. Steve hates this. This guy has been an asshole from day one.)
You know what? You ought to write one of those spy thrillers. With your know-how and what you’ve seen over the years, you’d be a natural. You must have a hundred stories to tell. Besides, how hard can it be?
Hmmm, this asshole might be onto something. Like he says, How hard can it be?
And another shitty spy thriller is born.
This scene must play out a hundred times a year with varying personnel: Cops, Scientists, Lawyers, Government workers, CPAs, Finance guys, CEOs, non-fiction writers and any number of other white collar workers who have specialized experience that they think they can turn into fiction. They read stories in the newspapers about other guys and gals who have written books and made it big, they look at John Grisham, hell, maybe they’ve even read one or two of his books on vacation, and that phrase continues to ring in their ears: How hard can it be?
Damn hard, as it turns out. The writing part is incredibly hard, as TG has pointed out over and over, but you can hire someone to help with that. What drives TG crazy is how these folks make the decision to write a thriller and plunge right ahead even though they have no or little idea of those who have gone before them. They think because it’s just adult entertainment that what they bring to the table, their “insider” knowledge and general smarts, is going to be enough to crank out a saleable thriller that’s going to earn them millions of dollars. And in many cases they find a publisher who will take their books on because these authors have what in publishing is called a “platform,” meaning they have a certain attainment in their field that guarantees them a market. TG is always astonished at how New York publishers wet their panties over the idea of politicians or ex-politicians writing thrillers. TG lives in Washington and is aware of people who work for the government, elected and not, who are considered absolute jokes in this town only to have them go to New York be welcomed as the second coming of John Le Carre.
But TG is going to be charitable here and allow that some of these folks are actually not bad people, but still they don’t really know anything about the genre and no one has the guts to tell them that before they start they’d better read wide and deep to see what has gone before them. Now TG is going to piss off a whole ‘nuther group of people when he lumps in many, far too many, writers with this group. These are generally non-fiction writers, or even fiction writers who decide that the thriller genre is white-hot so why not scoop up some of the money geysering into the pockets of guys like Steve Berry, Vince Flynn, Oliver North, Larry Bond, Jim DeFelice, Dale Brown, Brad Thor, the aforementioned Grisham and many others. So here they come, and here come more shitty thrillers. They re-invent (or at least attempt to) the wheel, break established conventions, make foolish mistakes, churn out clichéd, derivative, un-original characters, think up plots that they believe are cool and original but have grown old and hairy with time and then stand there like puppy dogs wagging their sorry tails, wondering why they have been dumped on by the critics, ridiculed by readers, and thought of as the fools they have shown themselves to be. All this after their editors and publishers have kissed their asses and told them how great they are. And here’s the sad part. In far too many cases they actually sell a ton of books because their names and past positions drag along plenty of readers who have no more understanding of the genre than they do. TG is thinking of a number of conservative idiot politicians who think that their followers will, indeed, follow them anywhere. And you know what? They do, because their followers are just as idiotic as they are.
Are all insider books like this, TG? Of course not. And in another post TG will recommend some that are very good indeed. But most of them are bad, in one way or another. How to stop this plague? Read on.
TG, generous, kind, nurturing guy that he is, is going to tell these folks what they can do to avoid this yawning chasm of a pitfall.
Read the canon. Study the genre. Take six months before you start and do your research. Do your homework. After all, TG is only suggesting that you sit back and read some of the greatest novels that have ever been written. Yeah, yeah, TG knows, you’re a busy guy and don’t have time for reading, you just want to tear right into your book. OK, go ahead, and don’t come crying when TG rips you a new one for the crap you try and force on him and the reading public.
It’s easy. There are web sites and books out there to put you on the thriller path. The quickest and easiest way to understand what’s going on and how we got where we are is to read Patrick Anderson, who reviews thrillers for The Washington Post. His book all about the history of the genre: The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction is all any aspiring thriller writer needs. This is a smart, funny, caustic book that tells why the genre became so hot and what are the best books to read and which are the worst. It should be required reading for any “insider” who thinks they have a story to tell. In fact it should be required reading for anyone who wants to write in the field.
Or there’s one other thing they could do. They could just hire Jim DeFelice as their collaborator and let him do the work. The man, a consummate pro, could turn goat shit into exciting thriller fiction.
There you go, hire Jim. Take the easy way out. Don't embarrass yourself.