A couple of blog entries ago, Thriller Guy purportedly answered a question from blog reader Marc who asked “How do writers stay ahead of technology in today's world, where today's new feature is old news next week.” TG uses the word “purportedly” because rather than answering Marc’s question, TG used it as a basis to wander off into a thicket of other ideas, never really addressing Marc’s excellent question. So Marc, the short answer to your question is: they don’t. Or perhaps a better answer would be: it’s impossible anyway, so you can’t really worry about it.
We could just leave it at that and wrap up the blog for this week, but as TG’s regular readers know he would never miss an opportunity to opine and digress and maybe rant a bit. TG would like to put some words in Marc’s mouth, because what TG thinks the question really is about is both the ongoing search for cool technology to hang a plot on and then the rapid descent of that same bleeding edge technology into the ho-hum commonplace. TG has written about this in an earlier blog about the proliferation of drone books in the last couple of years. The first of the drone books presented the new technology in all its gee-whiz glory, but as time went on, the following novels had to elevate the technology by adding new tech elements and/or more convoluted plots that expanded the possibilities of drones beyond their simplest uses.
TG would like to digress for a moment, as you know how he loves to do, with a short discussion of the rather old-fashioned words “gee whiz.” After using this term in the above paragraph, he decided to look it up and found that it is what is known as a “minced oath.” Which means using innocuous words for those that are considered taboo, in this case substituting them for the oath “Jesus Christ.” Here is a short but interesting article on minced oaths.
Gee whiz, Thriller Guy, you do love to go on and on, don’t you?
Will you please get back on topic and answer Marc’s question?
Sure, but first, digression number two, on the subject of drones: While recently reading an interesting thriller where the main character was a woman scientist who built tiny but deadly robots, (This was an excellent book, but TG can’t remember the title) a character was discussing why ordinary people have what seems like an instinctive fear of drones in all forms. “People see them as insects,” the character said. “And in this case they’re insects with guns.” Nice image, nice writing.
So to get back to Marc’s question, yes, thriller writers are always, well, thrilled to come across some new piece of technology upon which to build a plot and thereby a novel. But the professional thriller writer knows that what is new today is not going to be so by the time a book is written and published. You can hope that your tech discovery remains undiscovered by other thriller writers, but the truth is that there are a lot of guys and gals out there who write these kinds of thrillers and who are always combing the Internet for the next big tech marvel, so don’t depend on your chances of keeping your cool idea a secret. If you found it, so did someone else, and maybe he/she is a faster writer than you are.
There’s a corollary problem here that is also interesting. What do you do about Fidel Castro? His name comes up in thrillers quite often, but the guy is 88 years old and in bad health. It takes a regularly published book 12 to 18 months to go from completed manuscript to bookstore shelves, plenty of time for Fidel to drop dead. The best idea is to just not use him in any way in your thriller. Or, as in a thriller TG is currently reading for review, the author just went ahead and said he was dead. It probably looked like a pretty good bet many months ago when the manuscript was turned in to the publisher, about the time Fidel was in dire health straits. But he beat the odds, and now he’s in this guy’s book as being dead, when he isn’t. Does it make a difference? Not really, but little glitches like that always startle a reader out of the suspension of disbelief that writers want to keep them in. There are plenty of other major historical events that can derail a thriller that is in the production process: the Twin Towers can fall, as can the Berlin Wall. Young Kim can be dethroned in North Korea, and even presidents can be felled by assassins. The best you can do is not worry and soldier on.
Now we’ve come to the place where the Association of Those Who Think They Are Experts in Giving Writing Advice (of which TG is a proud member) insists that we say that you shouldn’t be hanging your novel on a cool piece of technology or fabulous historical find and expect that to carry your book onto the bestseller lists or even the Pretty Good Seller lists. We are obligated to remind you that good books are built on the backs of good characters with interesting multi-layered plots and attention to all the details of good writing. Yes, sure, but we’re talking about thrillers here, not the next great American novel. Here comes the rant…
Thriller readers don’t really give a shit about good writing. You can easily learn this by simply reading, say, ten thrillers that are on the bestseller lists. These should be the cream of the vast thriller crop, and yet it is TG’s experience (also vast) that of those ten, one might be considered to have what is considered excellent writing (that is writing that might be commonplace in a work of what we call literature) seven more will fall into the spectrum of damn good to OK to not very good at all, and two will be just plain bad.
Digression number three: In the ten years or so that TG has been in the professional criticism business, he has seen the quality of writing, in general, rise. Snooty critics will tell you that it has fallen, but they are wrong because snooty critics don’t know anything about genre writing. TG attributes this rise in quality to the old timers who really built the thriller genre and are now aging out and hiring other writers to help them or even take over their writing duties. You’ve got guys like Jim DeFelice and Mark Greaney and a bunch of others who are building on already established series characters and venues, guys who are actually better writers than the originals who invented their brands. There are reasons that they are better writers, but that’s a topic for another blog entry that TG may get around to writing some day.
The point is, Marc, and all you other readers and writers out there who have stuck with TG this far, while TG would love to see every book he reads and reviews be a work of excellent craftsmanship, if not literature, that’s not going to happen. So when TG picks up a new book, he is always on the lookout for a really great, new, inventive high tech, low tech, new or brilliantly refurbished plot concept or single device that will be the linchpin that holds the novel together and gives it power. (If a linchpin can actually power anything.) It doesn’t always happen, in fact it usually doesn’t, but smart writers who find such a device, and the lucky ones who hold it close and are first out of the gate with it, are a rare and blessedly fortunate bunch.
So there’s your answer, Marc: pursue this thriller grail, and if you find it, hold it close and write fast. If you can’t come in first with it, try to come in better than the other guys. But if you worry about it, you’re just going to drive yourself crazy. And writers already have enough to drive themselves crazy without adding anything to the pile.
So TG will remodel the mantra:
Sit down, shut up; get to work. And stop worrying.