Thrilling wisdom

A few days ago, I had the privilege of attending a presentation called “Nine Secrets to Writing Bestselling Thrillers” by Gayle Lynds. And hey, it’s a subject she is uniquely qualified to write about, since a number of her books have been hugely successful, and The Book of Spies, her latest, is poised to storm the charts again.

According to the author, the key elements of a hit thriller are fascinating characters who are involved both as individuals and on behalf of a group (representing “us”); a dramatic question (e.g. will the evil cabal succeed in nuking NYC or will the mild-mannered reporter stop them?); high stakes; a riveting concept with a larger-than-life focus (something you can train your writer brain to see); multiple viewpoints (see “characters” above; an exotic setting (or the ordinary made exotic by giving us intimate detail that we don’t know); consistent mood and tone, with all description earned, and each character thinking, feeling, and seeing in his or her own way; suspense starting from the first paragraph and rising from there (but including plateaus for character development and backstory); and a cathartic finale.

What do you think? I agreed with everything she said, even though I tend to like moodier, more psychological thrillers rather than the save-the-world kind. Still, these elements apply to the micro, family- or- person-in-jeopardy type of thriller just as much as the ones where the hero is trying to save Times Square from a dirty bomb.

Social media inspiration

I just attended an interesting session for writers on how to use social media. Presented by Alex and Donna Carrick of Carrick Publishing, (who can be found at http://www.carrickpublishing.com ), it was pitched at folks who were a bit newer to the whole game than I am. Still, we all got a lot of food for thought, and, as is normal for an event like the Bloody Words crime writing conference, the corridor discussions were as important to me as the seminar itself.

One of my big questions about blogging is how to balance the need for privacy and professionalism with authenticity. Of course, I agree that there is always something better to do than to tell someone off, and I don’t believe in negativity on these pages any more than I do in the rest of my life. But, what’s the point in writing if all your posts are simply anodyne? We all want people to buy our books (once we’ve published them!) but we also want them to keep coming back after they’ve done so. We need to balance the need for promotion with the need for networking, and the need to keep our audience’s interest even after we’ve made the sale.

That’s why I was particularly interested in the comments one of the other participants made outside the room. She had attended another session a few months ago and that person suggested that a writer’s blog should be one third about you as a person, one third about what you’re working on, and the final third about some subject matter where you can provide value. In my case, she suggested that my value could come from the fact that I have traveled and lived in some interesting places, and could write about them as possible settings. I thought that was a great idea.

More to follow.

Yes, I live

Well…that was a longer hiatus than I’d intended. In fact, since I didn’t intend one at all, I guess that’s not saying very much.

What’s been going on? Well, at the end of March, I attended a week-long workshop that probably put my writing ahead by ten years. The only problem is that I came away from it realizing I needed to rework my WIP. And I just didn’t–and frankly, don’t–have time to do that, and work my day job, and keep up with the blog as well as I want to.

So there it is. I have no intention of giving up on it all together, but for now, my entries will be sporadic. If you’re on Twitter, I hope you’ll follow me there (@rpfieldswriter).

#12X12: on release and enjoying envy*

So, apologies for being incommunicado for a while, but I was off on vacation and then got some excellent news that had my nose to the grindstone–or the laptop–for most of January. It also taught me a whole bunch of interesting things about myself and other people.

A few months ago I entered my WIP in a contest, the kind where you submit the first fifty or so pages, along with a synopsis, and then wait to see if you are asked for the full. I did it mainly as an exercise, to force myself to commit to a NaNoWriMo project by doing some of the thinking in advance. Getting asked for the entire manuscript seemed like an impossibility.

Well, of course you can guess what happened: I got a request to send in the whole thing on less than two weeks’ notice. Luckily, I did have a manuscript, but I hadn’t spent nearly as much time polishing it as I would have if I’d had more confidence in my work. That was the first lesson: stop selling myself short. Lack of confidence can create self-fulfilling prophesies.

I got my butt into gear–or into the seat of the chair–and polished my manuscript as much as I could, finally sending it off twenty minutes before the post office closed on deadline day. Although I’m still kicking myself for not working on the assumption that I needed to be ready for that request, I still ended up with a good piece of work. I’m glad I didn’t give in to my initial fear-driven impulse withdraw from the contest. Lesson two: I can accomplish more than I think when I really put my mind to it.

I was quite surprised, though, to get a snarky comment from a fellow writer who had previously been supportive. I told a couple of friends about it, and their immediate response was “she’s envious,” which makes sense, because while she’s had a few short stories published, she’s never finished a novel, let alone had one short-listed for a major contest.

Anyway, while her reaction has disappointed me, I learned several things from it. On a micro scale, I don’t need this lady’s approval. The big lesson was that it feels much better to be on the receiving end of envy than vice versa. I realized that, due to a whole bunch of factors in my family of origin, I’ve been afraid to really spread my wings in certain areas because it might arouse negativity from others. Experiencing someone’s direct envy, and not being destroyed by it, is very liberating for me.

The really sad part of this, though, is that if she’d been willing to have a conversation with me about it, I would have said a few things that might have made her feel better. After all, I have no illusions that my writing is any better than hers. She’s very talented. But, the bottom line is that my submission got long-listed because a) I entered the contest and b) a manuscript existed. You have a much better chance of winning a contest, or getting published, if you write something and send it out. It’s a good reminder to myself, too, that next time I’m envious of somebody I should look at the things that person might be doing that I’m not.

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*12X12 is my commitment to write at least monthly on something related to my #Reverb11 work. My theme for the year is “release,” and I’m pleased that I have let go of some of my fear, people-pleasing, and permission-seeking. So far, so good.

#Reverb11 Compassion, release, and #12X12

Catching up on the last couple of Reverb11 posts since I’m going to be away from my regular internet connection for the next couple of days.

Yesterday’s was: compassion, did it surprise you in 2011?

Oh yeah. But I was not surprised by other people’s compassion, since I know there were lots of great folks out there. Instead, it was my own that took me by surprise: the sudden ability to see a work nemesis as a little girl desperate to please “the big people” and unable to understand why her peers detested her, and the realization that a relative’s bizarre behaviour is linked to anxiety and toxic shame rather than malice. (Well, maybe in that case it would be more accurate to say that the malice is linked to anxiety and toxic shame.)

I attribute at lot of this to writing, since the effort to understand an antagonist’s motivation can’t help but carry over into real life.

Today’s theme is: What is your theme for 2012?

Mine is “release,” both in the sense of letting go, but also in the sense of freeing things, “releasing the hounds.” I’m tired of holding back, waiting, asking for permission. This year, I’m going to let it all out, in my writing and in my life, and let the chips fall where they may.

#12X12

I’m having so much fun with this Reverb business that I’m going to revisit it with a posting every month. I’ll give it some thought while I’m away and post more when I’m back online at the end of the week.

Happy New Year!

#Reverb11: ten years kinder

Catching up on #Reverb11 posts: what would you do if you were ten years younger? Can you do at least some of it today?

Frankly, there isn’t much that I think I’m too old to do. I do wish I’d pushed harder with my writing ten years ago. I was waiting for some kind of permission from somewhere, not realizing that it would never come, since it had to come from myself. Every so often I am consumed with regret when I think how much traditional publishing has changed. Maybe if I’d gotten my act together back then I could have had a contract etc. by now.

Then again, there are all kinds of options for writers now, including quality indie publishing, that were not available back then. The bottom line is that I need to focus on my craft and producing quality material. There’s no substitute for a really good book.

How can you be kinder to yourself in 2012?

See above. The kindest thing I can do for myself in 2012 is give my writing the time and respect it deserves, and not get sidetracked by these other considerations. The cart is no good to anyone if it’s before the horse.

#Reverb11: Surprise!

Today’s prompt: who do you want to surprise in 2011?

There’s only one answer to that: myself. I want to shock myself with the level of calm, productivity, and creativity I can bring to the year. I want to surprise my old self by living without some of the self-imposed restrictions that have been part of my thinking for so long.

[And, okay, lest you think I have been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by a pod-person, I would like to shock a few people who have been benefiting from those self-imposed restrictions, too.]