Monday, December 20, 2010

Busy Busy Busy... Leigh Russell... Tom Clancy

OK, OK, Thriller Guy is well aware that he has been remiss in his blogging duties, but it's been a very busy time here in the shop. You probably thought TG was going to use the hustle and bustle of Christmas as an excuse, but he hasn't even begun to come to grips with all that entails. No, the latest celebrity novel proposal has had to have extensive work; why can't agents just understand that their job is to obtain TG money so he can just write the damn book. Why all the fuss over plots details, structure, advance endorsements and on and on. Please, the book will get written expeditiously, and it will be good. Just get TG the money! And don't get TG started on whatever the foolish publisher is going to want before they fork over the cash. As if they knew anything anyway.

The there was the rush review on the new Tom Clancy book. What a behemoth. 950 pages. When TG started this job, lo those many years ago, he thought that he would soon acquire a newfound ability to speed read, but it hasn't happened. Barring that, he figured that in some dire circumstances he'd just cheat and skip along, pausing to dip into a page or two every once in awhile just to keep track of things, but that hasn't worked out either. TG has found, much to his annoyance, that he's unable to cheat on the reading. First of all, there's his eagle-eyed editor who often has queries about various plot points, and if that isn't bad enough TG has found that rattling around in the further reaches of his fervid brain is a set of moral standards that don't allow cheating, standards that he wasn't even aware of before he became a paid member of that elite crew, Big Time Book Reviewers. So, no luck, it's just read every damn page, which, Thank the Book Gods, wasn't really a chore because the Clancy was good, just long. More on the actual book later. And the length of manuscripts and books is a good topic for another day. TG's agent has two of his unpublished novels -- and he's had them for quite some time now -- one is really really long and one is really short, but both of them remain unsold. Come on, Bob, get with it! Sell at least one of them! Does TG have to do everything?

Now that we have that out of the way... the last several entries here have dealt with the problems of coming up with an idea worth building an entire novel around. Those of you who aren't up to speed, jump back and read a couple of the earlier blogs... There. All caught up? Good. Note that the British crime writer Leigh Russell commented on the last blog – thanks, Leigh – saying “My plots always seem to start with a body... and everything spins out from there.” TG went to her excellent blog and found she had addressed the point of coming up with good ideas herself. Leigh was recently interviewed by TG's pal Syd on his fabulous Scene of the Crime Blog, and in a private note to TG, which proves that he wasn't just trying to suck up to a writer, Syd said that Leigh's books were damn good. TG looks forward to the day that he can actually pick up a book that isn't a thriller and just read for pleasure. When that day comes, Leigh Russell's books will be at the top of the heap. Anyway, here's what Leigh had to say...

"Readers often ask how I think up plots for my crime novels and the answer is simple; I start with a ‘What if...?’ question, imagining a worst case scenario. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have a job in an office. One evening you are the last person to leave. Going to bed you remember that you left your mobile phone on your desk at work, so you go in early next morning to arrive before any of your colleagues. Entering the office you discover a dead woman sprawled on the floor. Only a few people have keys to your office, and no one admits to knowing the murder victim. This raises a number of questions. Who is the unknown victim? Why was she killed? You were last out at the end of the day and first in next morning - does suspicion fall on you? How do the police find the killer? If you write answers to the many questions raised by the body in the office, a basic crime thriller will virtually write itself. Of course it’s not that simple."

Not that simple, indeed. TG would contend that in some way all novels begin with the question What If? And that question comes up again and again as one writes, until one doesn't even notice it any more, it just becomes the engine that pushes the plot forward. Leigh's What If always begins with a dead body and she works her way forward, and backward, from there until she's filled in the why and who. This is the way to build a mystery novel, and it differs from a thriller. For thriller writers, the What If plotting begins with a situation, rather than a body. There will be bodies involved, of course, but the What If usually is the primary entry point: What If Terrorists steal an atom bomb and float it down the Potomac River in a boat just as the president is being sworn in; What If the head of the CIA is a sleeper mole who has been groomed as a spy since birth? You get the point.

And since it's Christmas, TG is going to leave all you writers out there who are searching for a cool plot, character or situation, with a news report that came out this week. But hurry, I guarantee that someone's already got the first chapter written.

And I guess the discussion of the new Tom Clancy will have to wait.