Preparation for every one of my books begins with a simple, one sentence (two at the absolute most), “What if” question. For example, creating The Patient began with the question: What if the most ruthless terrorist in the world had a brain tumor and needed surgery? For Extreme Measures, the question was: What if there was a drug (like the one described in Wade Davis’s wonderful book, The Serpent and the Rainbow) that can make you look dead to a trained physician even though you aren’t. For The Sisterhood, I asked: What if there was a secret society of nurses dedicated to mercy killing? The “What if?” is the absolute beginning of each of my books. I work hard at crafting it, and then submit it to my agent or editor for scrutiny. The reward for that initial meticulousness is that I get to start on the long and harrowing road to a 400 page novel with clarity. I also have a brisk, tight way of describing my book to the publisher, an interviewer, or anyone else who asks.
Once I have the “What if?” straight, the next question to be answered is: “Whose book is it?” Does the idea lend itself particularly to a male lead or female? If not, then what gender protagonist do I feel like writing about? What age and background? And most importantly, what is this main character going to have at stake in the story?
The main elements of a good thriller are fairly consistent:
1) There is something that has been going on before the story starts.
2) The protagonist has been dealing with issues of her own before the story starts.
3) The protagonist encounters the story because of who she is and what she does, setting a series of events in motion.
It is crucial that she does not seek out the story (unless she is a private eye hired to “investigate”). The rest of the moves are inexorable. To survive, the protagonist must go the story. In so doing, she is changed in some fundamental way. Two of the very best examples of this sort of writing are Marathon Man, and Six Days of the Condor. Writing books as engaging and exciting as those two is always my goal. Incidentally, I write a detailed 2–3 page summary of the main characters’ lives—upbringing, family, habits, likes, dislikes, living situation, job history, education, and personality traits. Often I will make such a sketch of several lesser characters as well, though not in such detail.
Writing a proposal is perhaps more important for published authors trying to get another book going than it is for those just trying to get into the business. However, I think any step that improves clarity of thought in a writer is worth taking. The book proposal is not long, but may be up to three or even more pages. There are no rules. For me, this is the step between the What If? and the outline.
Before embarking on an outline, I will often have as many as five or six proposals rejected by my agent for one reason or another.
“This is the story of . . . ” is the place I usually begin. The proposal gives me the chance to focus my thoughts on exactly who this book is going to be about and why they are at the center of the story. The details of what actually happens to them is not critical at this point except in the broadest sense. The proposal can be written in the third person present tense, just as are the outlines I write (see #4, below).
Example: The Belinda Syndrome is the story of Matt Rutledge, a thirty-eight-year-old Harvard-trained internist in a mining town in West Virginia. Matt has always blamed the mine’s indifference to safety for his father’s death. Since he entered practice in his hometown, he has been a thorn in the mine’s side with constant complaints to OSHA and the Bureau of Mines. Now he has stumbled on two horrible, lethal cases that he is certain the mine has caused by its dumping of toxic waste. He couldn’t be more wrong. . .
So, that’s the beginning of a proposal. Actually, it happens to be the beginning of the proposal for my next book, currently nearing completion and due to be published in the Spring. No title yet, but I’ll keep you posted. I will say that in one way or another, vaccinations are right at the center of the story.
Next to figuring out what to write, writing an outline is the most difficult for me. I spend 4–5 months developing my story in this form, and am paid as well by my publishers for completing an outline as I am subsequently for completing the book. There are those writers who can pen a novel and then do it over again (or write another one) if the story doesn’t work. With my busy schedule as a doctor and a daddy, I am not in that group. Reworking a detailed outline is possible for me. Rewriting an entire book would be disastrous. For my latest (still unnamed) thriller, I submitted 5 different outlines of the same premise before getting it right.
In addition to making major changes much easier, outlining before I write gives me the chance to foreshadow events and plant various clues to help the astute reader figure out who is doing what to whom.
I “stole” the form I use in my outlines from the late Robert Ludlum’s book, The Chancellor Manuscript. In that book, Peter Chancellor, the narrator, keeps sending outlines of his chapters to his agent. Ludlum actually puts the chapter outlines in the story and uses them to drive the narrative along. Clever! The three or four dollars I spend on that novel back in 1980 was one of the best investments I’ve ever made.
Basically, my outline is a flow of the action in the chapter, written third person, present tense-minimal or no description, crucial dialogue only.
Example ( from Fatal ): . . . . Matt cares for Kyle Slocumb, who is bleeding internally from an ulcer. Then, almost in passing, he shows the note to Kyle’s brother, Lewis. Lewis knows of The Cleft, the tunnel, and even has heard the rumor that toxic waste is being stored somewhere inside the mountain. Because of Matt’s stature with the brothers and the care he has given Kyle, Lewis agrees to go in with him.
The detailed outline ends up being 1–3 double-spaced pages long per chapter, 40–60 pages for a 35 chapter book. I never bother trying to outline the last 5–6 chapters until the rest of the book is actually written. My editor “clears” the outline before I start chapter one (or the prologue). When I get down to the actual writing, I feel free to deviate from the outline, but out of courtesy, I will call and discuss any major deviations from what was agreed upon with my editor.
So, that’s it. Go get yourselves a copy of The Chancellor Manuscriptand get rolling on that outline!
The concept of conflict as the driving force behind any piece of fiction (and in truth much non-fiction as well) came somewhat naturally to me as it does to many others. However, there are a great many writers, damn fine writers too, if you measure that by their literary images, vocabulary, and descriptive passages–who don’t get it and probably won’t get it, no matter how long they write.
At the center of the novel is story and at the center of story is conflict. It’s as simple as that.
Characters need something to push against to show (not tell!!!) who they are. Conflict in a story is between characters, between the character and whatever is going on (often before the novel takes place), and most essentially, between the character and himself. Throughout the course of the story, and especially toward the end, resolution of various conflicts will be why readers keep turning the pages. They might believe that they are reading to find out what happens, but in truth they are reading because they care about the characters and want to experience the resolution of their conflicts.
Conflicts work best when their resolution causes change-catharsis-in the character involved. Conflict, resolution, catharsis. If you get that, you get most of what we storytellers are shooting for. As you read or write, try to actively note down what you think the conflicts are in your book, how they are resolved, and what changes are engendered by the resolution.
In The Patient, Jesse Copeland begins the story in conflict with her boss, with the technicality of the robotic device she is developing, and with her mother (and to some extent herself) over the lack of a significant relationship in her life. And those conflicts are occurring before the villain even sets foot on the page!
So when you’re planning what to write or wondering why a book works (or doesn’t), remember the three critical concepts: CONFLICT, RESOLUTION, CATHARSIS.
Sounds simple, huh? I aced that course at Washington Street School, or was that Show AND Tell? Well, I am here to tell you that even the best and/or wealthiest writers don’t take advantage of every opportunity to drive their book forward by showing instead of telling. If conflict is at the heart of story, this concept is at the heart of effective narrative.
“He was a cruel and remorseless man.” –doesn’t pack a whit of excitement or drama for every reader, but showing the character doing something cruel and remorseless certainly does. Characters must be defined by what they do, not by what you say they are. From time to time, dialogue–what they say–accomplishes this definition quite nicely, but when possible, go for some good, action, motivated by who the character is. Showing may be done in a sentence or two, or sometimes it takes an entire chapter (providing the showing drives the story forward.)
At the start of chapter 3 in The Patient, rather than tell the reader that Sara is witty and also brave about her brain cancer, I try to show that through her surgeon (Jessie) reading the pre-op disclaimers:
“You may lose the vision in one or both of your eyes.”
“As long as it’s only one or both.”
“Okay, then. Initial here. . . . ‘You may lose the use of one or both of your arms.”
“Arms? I mean really. What do I need arms for anyhow? Show me one unhappy amoeba. I can scratch my back on a tree like the bears and eat pie like those guys in the county fair. Mmmmmmm.”
Get the idea? Don’t say George was meticulous and fastidious to a fault. SHOW him lining up the socks in his drawer or arranging the bills in his wallet by denomination. Oh, you do that? Sorry.
So, think about places where you (or the writer you’re reading) could have made the narrative more vibrant and enjoyable by showing rather than telling.
As far as I’m concerned, getting fiction published, or nonfiction, too, for that matter, begins with finding a literary agent. Here are some tips:
1 )There is no truth to the old saying that you can’t get an agent without having had a book published. In the words of my agent, if she sat around all day waiting for Stephen King to decide to change agents, she would starve.
2) There is much truth to the old saying that you can’t get a book published without an agent. “Over the Transom” books that actually even get read, let alone published are rare, although they do happen.
3) Agents can be gotten in the following ways (among others).
(a) Write letters to authors (c/o their publisher or their web site) who write books of the same genre as yours and ask who their agent is. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
(b) Read Writers’ Marketplace, the magazine Writers’ Digest, and any of the number of reference books (library) on finding an agent. Reference room librarians love to help with this sort of thing. And don’t forget the Internet.
(c) Attend writer’s conferences that feature agents and appointments with agents. There are many, often advertised in Writers’ Digest. The Maui Writers’ Conference may be the largest such gathering with many agents in attendance and accessible–www.mauiwriters.com. I also recommend contacting Gail Provost of Write It/Sell It;www.writersretreatworkshop.com for any materials she has pertaining to agents, and also for information on the next Writers’ Retreat Workshop.
4) Once you have the name of an agent, send a carefully written cover letter. There are differing opinions about what to send with the letter. I personally recommend sending the whole manuscript (or at least 100 pages and the outline of the rest), and include a SASE for its return. What can you lose?
(a) The cover letter should include who you are, what genre your book is, and a two to four paragraph synopsis similar to what you might see on the hardcover flyleaf. Packaging is everything to the book world. Also mention that you have other book projects in mind or in the works. No one wants to represent a one-book author. Agents have told me again and again that anything “cute” is a turn-off. Stick to a well-crafted letter.
(b) The good agents charge 15% of whatever they make you. No one should charge you up front. Those who charge reading fees make me uncomfortable, but that’s up to you.
5) You should get an acknowledgment that your manuscript has been received. From that point on it’s usually 6–8 weeks.
6) Multiple submissions are fine, but if you decide to go with an agent, be sure to let the others know.
7) And finally, if you believe in your stuff, accept no rejection as meaningful. The story is told again and again of the new author who was rejected by one publishing house after another, each time being told that nobody wants to read a book about the mafia. For your interest, I am represented by the Jane Rotrosen Agency; 318 East 51st Street; New York, New York 10022. Some of the newer agents (and therefore with a lighter load right now) are Annelise Robey and Christina Hogrebe. Good luck.
Think there are no available agents out there? I recently got a list of those agents who have signed on to see prospective clients at the third annual Thrillerfest in NYC. Be sure to look for me and say hello while you’re there.
ThrillerFest hits new heights. Not only will ThrillerMasters SANDRA BROWN and JAMES PATTERSON, along with spotlight authors ERIC VAN LUSTBADER, BRAD THOR, and KATHY REICHS be there. But . . .
DAVID BALDACCI, R.L. STINE, STEVE MARTINI and ANDREW GROSS have also joined the ThrillerFest lineup! Along with many, many more of your favorite New York Times authors.
Writers focus on the craft of writing at CraftFest. Some of the teachers include: “Writing the Breakout Novel” author/agent Donald Maass, Publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam Neil Nyren, Patterson co-author Andrew Gross, New York Times best sellers: Lee Child, Eric Van Lustbader, Heather Graham, Steve Berry, James Rollins, David Morrell, Joseph Finder, Gayle Lynds, David Hewson, Jon Land and M.J. Rose.
AgentFest is a big hit! Over 30 agents/editors want to meet you and hear about your projects. This will be a one on one “speed dating” with an agent meeting–introduce yourself, pitch your project, ask questions, this time is for you! For a partial list see below:
One of the most difficult concepts for most new writers is point of view. In other words, through whose eyes is this story–or this part of the story–being told? What is the character thinking and feeling? What does he know? How does she interpret what is going on? When I first started story telling, it was hard for me to understand that most scenes work best with one or at the most two points of view. In Fatal, after Nikki is saved from drowning and Matt approaches her, I write:
“The woman, thin, white, in her thirties, was unconscious and breathing ineffectually.”
Who says she’s breathing ineffectually? Answer: Matt does. It’s his point of view. And since he’s a physician, he can know this. If he was, say, an uneducated bag-man, not only would he not know for certain whether Nikki’s breathing was ineffectual or not, but he would probably never think in terms of such a sophisticated word as ineffectual.
She was a pretty thing (I might have written from such a man’s point of view). White, not too old, unconscious, and grunting every time she took a breath.
Sometimes, it’s neat to see two points of view in one scene, such as a man and woman verbally jousting with one another as each tries to figure out what the other is thinking. But mostly, stick to one character’s point of view in each scene. When there is a scene with two or more characters whose point of view has been used in other parts of the book (such as in Fatal, when Matt, Nikki, and Ellen are together in the cave) you are still probably better off to choose just one character’s point of view. If it works, you can certainly throw in snippets of what the other folks are thinking.
It should be obvious that if you are writing in the first person present or past tense, there will be only one point of view unless, as a literary device, you choose to switch points of view (and even tense) in the middle of the story. For an example of this technique, see what Tess Gerritsen does with the killer in her wonderful thriller, The Surgeon.
I have found it effective and quite frightening to describe scenes of murder from the point of view of the victim, often giving bits of background of the character to heighten sympathy.
There is one final point of view I want to describe. So far, in my novels, I have written only in the third person past tense. In this person and tense, I as the narrator, must have an omniscient point of view-simply describing the action of the story without adding any subjective thoughts or value judgments.
The woman was disgustingly obese.
If this woman is being introduced by the narrator (story-teller) and not through a particular character’s point of view, passing judgment on her obesity is inappropriate. The omniscient narrator in a third-person story must remain neutral and detached. Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.
Writing dialogue is especially enjoyable for me and other writers for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a morale booster–the pages fly by when there is a lot of conversation. Secondly, it’s really quite relaxing. I just close my eyes, become something of a tape recorder, and allow my characters to provide the material.
Every bit of dialogue should contain some level of tension that will (hopefully) advance the story. That’s not to say the characters must have a screaming and shouting battle, but there should be drama in each piece. Most importantly, never forget that dialogue is not real speech. Extraneous words and responses that we take for granted (and hardly notice) in normal conversation make written dialogue deadly boring. Teaching my son’s fifth grade creative writing class, I watched the children struggle with dialogue like:
“Hi, Beth, it’s Sandy.”
“Oh, hi. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay. I heard you are going to a dance with Joe.”
“That’s right,” Beth said.
“Are you sure you want to go to the dance with him?”
“When did he ask you?”
“The other day.”
“What did he say?”
“Just that there was a big dance coming up at school and would I like to go.”
“And you said yes?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“I thought you liked him?”
“Oh, he seems like a good guy. I just thought you wanted to go with Teddy. That’s all.”
Now, the above is decent enough conversation, but ponderous dialogue. Try writing it your way, streamlining where necessary, expanding where necessary, and creating a little tension and drama. The late Gary Provost, my favorite professor of the nuts and bolts of writing, taught that heavy handed dialogue occurs when characters are giving each other information they already have, and the reader becomes aware of the writer at work. I like that. He also wrote that when you write dialogue, ask yourself if you would eavesdrop on the conversation at a restaurant. If the answer is no, rewrite it.
Finally a few words about he said, she said, and adverbs. Readers essentially skip over the he saids and she saids, so you can use them as much or as little as you wish, and insert them into the beginning, middle,or end of a sentence. I use them to keep straight who is talking, and to insert a miniscule beat into the rhythm of the dialogue. Sometimes it’s a beat that only I will feel. There is also some added drama when he said is at the very end of a chapter-assuming that the sentence preceding it has some punch or hidden (?double?, ?sinister?) meaning. Avoid using too many adverbs after he said. The dialogue, if it’s right, should obviate the need for such. “You can just go to hell!” George cried out angrily. . . . “Bet on the five horse,” the grizzled man whispered softly. Sometimes adverbs are needed when there is more than one way a sentence can be said, but mostly the contents should be their own adverb.
So, that’s it. Oh, yes, one more thing. There is no right length for a dialogue. It may be three lines or ten pages so long as it has some tension and forwards the story.
Some of the most useful tools in writing fiction (or non-fiction for that matter) are those which keep the author from having to write transitions. Something as simple as getting a character from one place to another can be so lengthy, cumbersome, and boring as to bog down the story.
These transitions may be from one time to another, from one character to another, from one location to another, or any combination of the above.
The most commonly used tool for making transitions without having to write them out is the chapter. Without chapter breaks, a novel would be something like a run-on sentence. Dramatic highlights would tumble into one another and would often be lost in the commotion. There is no set number of chapters a book should be, and no set length per chapter.
Each writer must decide how he/she wishes to use this tool (and the others listed below). Stephen King (still one of my very favorites) has written chapters that are just half a page long. I tend to build my chapters around one main dramatic event, although sometimes with the help of line spaces (see below), two or three lesser events as well.
Because my sense of a chapter-worthy dramatic event is fairly constant, my chapters are usually 2500-3500 words long. As it turns out, my novels are usually built of 35-45 of those chapters-110,000 – 120,000 words, which is a length publishers like. I often graph the level of tension from one of my chapters to the next, looking for a slowly rising saw-tooth pattern in the early going, leading up to some sort of major event, followed by more or less skyrocketing tension for the rest of the novel. I once told my editor that I was worried about my novel because there wasn’t that much action in it. She quickly replied that what I was being paid to write wasn’t action, but TENSION, and that I had better know the difference between the two. I don’t name my chapters, but I have enjoyed many books where the author did.
In addition to chapters, writers might use “Parts” or “Books” to handle more major transitions. Another valuable pair of tools is the starred and unstarred line spaces, the starred separating the more major transition of the two. In my writing, an unstarred line space (double hitting the space bar) is usually used to move a single character to another time or place. It eliminates sending the reader on a drive or a flight with the character, although after the break, reference can be made as to how the character got to where he is now. The symbol in starred line spaces is usually chosen by the book designer. In my writing, starred spaces almost invariably signify a change in character. The event following such a break may be happening simultaneous to the preceding event, or may be too short in description to qualify as one of my chapters.
As you read my books, watch for these tools and think about their use. Writers who haven’t been using them should be relieved to learn there is such a convenient way to handle the often difficult problems of transitions.
The Elements of a Dramatic Opening
If (as I recommend) you use chapters to highlight dramatic events and make transitions easier and less intrusive, you will want to get the most out of the first lines of those chapters. I spend a great deal of time trying to determine where and how to get into a chapter. Here are some hints to get the most out of those openings:
1. The first lines of chapters are only slightly less important than the first line of the book. Vary the nature of those lines from one chapter to the next. Whatever you choose, it is essential to hook the reader into wanting to read on. Start with a quote or dialogue sometimes, a critical description others, or else an action bit. Whatever you choose, the first sentence should always be engaging and intriguing even if it is just an observation about an object: A layer of grime on the first floor windows eerily diffused the light coming from within.
2. Don’t always begin at the beginning. Start some chapters in the middle of the dramatic moment you want to develop, then flash back, even briefly, to the event(s) leading up to that moment. When reading a book that you like (preferably one of mine) take some pains to read, reread, and analyze the way chapters are started, paying special attention to the use of early flashbacks. Example: Fatal, Chapter 7:
“Look officer, I don’t mean to be a pest, but this woman is really ill and she’s running around the city somewhere, certain that some people are trying to kill her.”
Four days had passed since Kathy’s call, and not another word from her until just now. When Nikki returned home from the office, there was a rambling message from her on their answering machine.
See what I mean? You need to bring the reader up to speed on what’s been going on, but what’s been going on often isn’t dramatic enough to drive the narrative. So start with something that does present that drive, and then flash back.
3. No long passages of exposition to start a chapter.
4. Using the senses (the way something smells, feels, sounds etc. to the character) is always a strong way to get into the chapter.
Again, the best way to get this business of chapter openings is to read and analyze, read and analyze. Look more for patterns than specific examples, then add your own twist when you write.
When I speak at conferences and signings, many of the questions asked have to do with the business of getting a book from my word processor (a MacIntosh, incidentally) to the Book Buyers. Well, here ’tis.
Generally, my books are “bought” by my publisher before I ever write them, and an advance payment is agreed upon. I will not be paid any more until book sales “earn out” the advance according to a formula that is somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the cover price depending on numbers sold. From the time the book is bought, I will work with my editor. First, if it hasn’t been done already, we have to agree on my “What if?” question and proposal. Next, she will want to see my outline. If I have any problems, I am encouraged to discuss them with her anytime. Generally, she asks to see the book when it is halfway done, and again after draft number one. Her suggestions will be incorporated into draft number two, and maybe even number three. She can be looked upon as the director of a play, where I am the actor. If we are at odds over something (which we rarely are), we might enlist another reader.
When the manuscript is done and has a title (no small task much of the time), my agent sends it off to a Hollywood agent for distribution to film companies. Meanwhile, a publication date is set, the art, sales, advertising, publicity, and marketing departments get their first look at the book, and I am (strongly) encouraged to get cracking on the next What If?! At the same time, it is sent to a copy editor, whose job it is to make sure the style is consistent (is it MD or M.D.? Nurse’s lounge or Nurses’ lounge?), the grammar is right (if it only was? or if it only were?) and the facts are correct (demerol? or Demerol?). After I have answered all of the copy editor’s queries (I once had 500), a book designer takes over and chooses the fonts, page size, chapter headings, etc. Finally, the book goes into print. Receiving a galley–also called the first pass pages–is a major thrill after so much work. So is getting the first cover proof. (“Are you sure my name isn’t too small?”)
While I and a couple of proofreaders are going over the pages, uncorrected bound advanced reading copies (ARC) are sent to reviewers, book buyers, and others in the industry (and of course, my relatives). At this point, hopefully, a buzz for the book will have begun. Copies of the ARC also go to the sales force who need to have the orders in for the book three or even four months before the publication date. The initial print run will be determined by a formula related to the order size from key accounts.
It’s that simple.
WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW ABOUT. That old saw has a great deal of truth to it . . . but only to a point. If I just wrote about what I know, my books would soon begin to sound like an internal medicine (I have boards in that) textbook. So in truth, at some point we all have to write about something we don’t know about. I do it almost every day, and usually it’s great fun. The benefit we have as writers is that the readers don’t know that what’s in the book might be all we know on a given subject!! It’s like an actor, who is just about the only one in the theater who knows what the line is supposed to be. If he forgets the line, but is smooth about it, no one is the wiser. Now, that’s not to say we should put down misinformation and be happy with it. NEVER KNOWINGLY PUT DOWN INFORMATION THAT IS WRONG! NEVER! Sooner or later you will be exposed.
Some of the resources I use regularly include:
–Periodicals, books, and newspapers – great for getting ideas about what to write about. Collect interesting clippings and save them. You never know when your ideas will dry up.
–Textbooks-I can’t begin to list all the books I have bought and studied-at least a couple for every book I have written. For my current book, THE FIRST PATIENT, I have read all or part of seven books. I often go to Amazon or B&N.com, type in a subject and see what they have.
–Experts-Almost always, people are more than willing to speak with you about their field of expertise. Agencies have public affairs offices. Talk to friends in allied fields and get some names. IMPORTANT: Have your what if? crafted before you contact anyone, and have a list of questions prepared. Also, be ready to take notes on the answers. Never rely on your memory (I don’t even have one anymore). I was researching the Internet in preparation for writing my current book about the president’s doctor, when I found the name of someone who, for 10 years was the doctor to three presidents. I got her current address off the Internet and contacted her. She is now an invaluable reference for me, but also has become a dear friend. For face-to-face meetings, try and bring a tape recorder and camera. When I use an expert to answer a specific concern, the main question I start with is: IS IT POSSIBLE? Even if something is highly unlikely, if it’s possible, I can make it happen. That’s what my imagination is for. Anecdotes and figures of speech add invaluable authenticity.
–Maps-Have boxfuls of these. All types. The more detailed the better. You’ll be amazed at how many times you can add neat detail and color to your writing by knowing specific streets and directions. And when you don’t have the right map, there’s always:
–The Internet-How did we do it before there was one? However, be sure to carefully blend what you read (and print out as much as possible) with your imagination. For my book THE FIFTH VIAL (pub date 2/20/07), I wrote an interesting scene where my hero goes to Amritsar, India. If you have the book, it’s Chapter 27. If you don’t have the book, stop reading here and hie to your nearest bookstore! Anyway, the point is I have never been to Amritsar. I chose the place because it suited my purposes. On line, I got all sorts of details about the streets, buildings, culture, and people, INCLUDING PHOTOS (be sure you know how to use the “image” toggle on Google.)
A few final thoughts. Avoid overwhelming your readers with jargon and technical details just because you can. Have someone in the know check your facts (read the book) when you are done, and someone not in the know read it to see if they are confused, or worse, bored. Acknowledge your sources where possible. Sometimes, I use their name for a character. A blend of things made up and things real often works great. So do commonly known products.
So, that’s it for this tip. Thanks to my friend Tess Gerritsen for sharing her approach to the subject.
This tip really should have been placed right after the one dealing with WHAT IF? because when I write a thriller, coming up with the McGuffin is what comes next. It is not an easy concept to grasp, and I would recommend you Google “McGuffin” if things aren’t clear to you. But let me give it a try.
Most people read a thriller thinking they are reading it to find out what happens at the end—the explanation for what is going on in the story. “Oh, they wanted to steal nuclear secrets and rule the world!”……”Oh, they want to give plastic surgery to a killer and have him replace the vice president!”
The truth is, whether readers are aware of it or not, most of the time, they keep reading a book because they have been led to care about the characters and what happens to them. The explanation at the end of what’s going on—the McGuffin—is sort of a throw-in that most of the time could be any number of things.
Alfred Hitchcock is credited with coining the phrase, and the example most often used to illustrate the concept is NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece in which, through a case of mistaken identity, baddies are trying to kill Cary Grant. The reason they are trying to kill him is that he knows something. What he knows is immaterial—the McGuffin. It could be any of a thousand things, as long as it “fits” the plot. In fact, the notion of mistaken identity is something of a McGuffin as well. The bad guys could know that Grant’s brother was a spy who could have given Grant nuclear secrets— something like that. Get it?
I often say that the McGuffin is something you need to figure out before you can start writing your book, but once you have it, you can set it aside and go ahead with the writing. In THE FIFTH VIAL, protagonist Natalie Reyes has her lung stolen on a trip to Rio.
Many other things happen in the book, but eventually we learn about a secret society of surgeons using the philosophy of Plato to justify the “redistribution” of organs. That is the McGuffin. Given the assignment, I could come with any number of explanations for why Natalie has her lung stolen, and the story would change very little.
So first I decide what I want to write about. Next I formulate a What If? question. And then, before deciding who the protagonist will be, I explain the What If? with a McGuffin. If I need to, during the writing, I can change the McGuffin to a different one. There are no rules here except that it is preferable not to begin writing the book without one.
One last example: In my book EXTREME MEASURES, a drug that makes a person look dead when they’re not is used to remove homeless people from society. The reason they are being removed (to develop a universal antibiotic) is the McGuffin. It could have been that a warlord wanted to create a zombie army and conquer the world, but I think you’ll agree that is one McGuffin best left crumpled up on the writing room floor.