It was probably a throwaway suggestion: ‘I think you should make your next book a thriller‘, but it’s stuck in my mind – especially as it came from someone in the book world whose opinion I respect.
Well, OK, I’m prepared to consider it at least. But first I need to understand what’s involved. Would my ideas thus far fit into this genre? Do I have what it takes to master this kind of writing? So I’ve been delving into the theory; what I’d need to do to create a good thriller. To date I’ve identified seven essentials.
1. Use dread and frightening possibilities to drive the story.
2. Make it action-packed from the outset. Maintain urgency and tension (short paragraphs, cliff hangers, surprises, active verbs, each chapter revealing something new, etc etc) throughout. Include confrontation.
3. Make the stakes high. Give the bad guys seemingly justifiable aims too.
4. Keep the reader guessing till the end.
5. Give the protagonists lots of baggage and emotional complexity, something to fight against and triumph over. Make sure they endure plenty of grief and anxiety along the way. Some characters at least shouldn’t be what they seem to be. Avoid stereotypes.
6. Build dramatic tension by means of multiple points of view.
7. Have an unforgettable take-home message/meaning.
OK, some at least of the basics.
I’ve read plenty of thrillers over the years; indeed I’m a big fan of both Harlan Coben and Robert Goddard, but I fancied testing the theory using something new to me … Hmmm, how come I have so many unread thrillers on my shelves? … Right, let’s choose something with rave reviews … an acknowledged masterpiece … and maybe something medical?
Young neurosurgeon Zackery Iverson has left an understaffed, under-resourced hospital and dedicated team of colleagues to return to the place where he grew up, leaving behind a broken relationship and almost all his belongings. His new workplace, the ultramodern rejuvenated regional hospital in Sterling, New Hampshire, is thriving under the leadership of his older brother Frank. State of the art equipment, a growing team of specialists, ultra modern facilities, a veritable ‘juggernaut of technology’. Sounds impressive, but where is the heart?
Zack becomes increasingly concerned about the policies and politics behind the veneer of success. How can the hospital board own so much property? Why are poor patients shipped elsewhere? Why is a very senior doctor claiming harassment and a campaign to get rid of him? Why can a young patient recall events when he should have been anaesthetised during a routine operation? Why is Zach’s new friend and colleague, Suzanne Cole, so alert and bright immediately after her surgery; and why is she behaving erratically now? And why is Zach’s own brother resurrecting childhood rivalries?
Old doubts and insecurities raise their heads. Is Zach being naive and idealistic? Is the cut and thrust of a modern medical ‘business’ simply not for him? Should he have stayed as a champion of the underprivileged and poor?
A growing sense of dread starts to unravel in his head when he’s called in to work with 8 year old Toby Nelms, a boy who’s so disturbed he’s stopped speaking, is having nightmarish flashbacks, and is wasting away. Why is this lad so terrified of hospitals? How does he know about Metzenbaums? – only staff working in an operating theatre would use the word. There can be only one answer: somehow Toby was awake during his surgery for an incarcerated inguinal hernia. But how could he be? And how much of his suspicions dare Zach share with Toby’s desperate mother?
Could some of his colleagues be monsters masquerading as caring physicians and nurses? Is his own brother somehow implicated? Just where do the ethical boundaries begin and end?
Yep, I’d say this fits all of the above criteria. Thrilling! Unputdownable. I’m hooked, reading long after I should be tucked up asleep.
But I note something else important. There are lots of characters and subplots in this story – hard to keep a handle on initially, but gradually they become rounded out and emerge as … the shrewd controlling judge … the anaesthetist with a secret unsavoury history … the cardiologist with an abusive ex-husband and a young daughter … the nanny who has served her family faithfully but is now threatened with a nursing home … the nurse who can be bought … the shallow secretary chosen for her loose morals and voluptuous body. This steady drip of detail from various sources adds greatly to the suspense. You’re left wondering just who is the real baddie in all of this? who else is implicated in some way? Everybody seems to have mixed motives, vulnerabilities and dubious characteristics. And the links between them grow ever more tortuous. A tall order to achieve that level of complex interweaving. Could I manage it? Right at this moment I’m not at all sure I could.
Having a take-home message is less of a problem to me. In this case: how far would any of us go to uphold our personal moral standards? What if it became a question of love and loyalty over rules and systems? Familiar? Yep. My kind of territory.
OK. Let’s try again with another novel, another author … a medical mystery-cum-thriller, Damaged by Pamela Callow. Again stories within stories, lots of intertwined characters with mixed agendas, false trails. A blond dog-walker, a lawyer with a haunting past, an inscrutable judge with a murdered daughter, a rejected policeman … By now I’m hugely impressed by authors who can hold all this together so successfully.
One thing is definitely in my favour. Medicine’s a hotbed of ethical quandaries – that’s why I became a novelist in the first place, of course. All those folders containing ideas and research material amassed over the years? Ideal material for intrigue and mystery and dark deeds.
So, what do I think now? Well, I’m not ruling out a thriller this time around. Indeed I’m already trying to work out some kind of grid that would make my story-line work. But, boy, what an undertaking. I might be gone some time!!
Have you ever discovered that you’ve somehow bought two copies of the same book – neither of which you’ve read? Mea culpa. Twice! Grrrrr. On both occasions I’ve sternly resolved to order my books more carefully … when I get time. But that time never seems to materialise.
So I was mightily impressed by this story I read about recently. In the tenth century, Abdul Kassam Ismael, Grand Vizier of Persia, took his library with him wherever he went so he’d always feel at home. At first I was pretty sceptical – well, how many books were there in those days? But this man had no less than 117,000 titles. It took 400 camels to carry them and would you believe it, these living shelves were trained to march in alphabetical order! Knocks our Dewey Decimal systems into a cocked hat, huh?
Since the Festival is in full swing, I’ve only had space to dip into secondhand bookshops in odd breaks between shows this week, but so far – phew! touch wood – no duplicates among my purchases. No time to read them yet though. Nor to rearrange my shelves. Too busy being a regular Festival-goer with my grandchildren and being challenged and bowled over by other people’s amazing talent – scriptwriters, actors, musicians, dancers, artists. So much cleverness out there. Star of the show so far: Rebecca Dunn with an impeccable eighty minute monologue about her life as Lady Pamela Moore, fashion columnist and secret agent infiltrating the lives of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. Fantastic.
And while we’re on the subject of brilliance … Can you get your head around a mind that could conjure up something as stunning as this living sculpture (Jupiter Artland)?
Or these wonderfully evocative weeping girl statues nestling so naturally in woodland (also Jupiter Artland)?
We visited this collection of amazing installations for the second time yesterday and were impressed all over again. Highly recommended.
Wow! Once again, how fortunate am I?
I live just south of the city of Edinburgh, home to the biggest arts festival in the world and in history. For years I’ve been a keen supporter of the International Book Festival. My record of attendance to date is 23 events in 2008 in that famous tented village!
However, since my granddaughters have demonstrated a keen interest in the performance arts, I’ve divided my time between the EIBF and the Fringe, taking in lots of plays, shows and concerts with them. A real treat. So I have a fat wallet full of tickets ready for an exciting couple of weeks this month.
This year’s events began well for me with the Writers in the Fringe event in Blackwell’s Bookshop on the first Thursday in August. Five authors gave us a fifteen minute glimpse into their latest books; entertaining as well as informing. One even put on her own little side-show involving a suitcase and audience participation! Very clever. (Five different authors each Thursday in the month if you’re interested. Oh, and it’s free!)
The Foodie Festival in Inverleith Park was new to me but great fun, offering tastes and experiences well outside my usual comfort zone. Jam made with chocolate as well as fruit? Toffee vodka? Blue cheese oatcakes? Lemongrass chocolate? Marmite popcorn? Frozen passion fruit prosecco? All quite delicious. That was gloriously sunny Saturday – fortunately; the event was closed for its third and last day on Sunday because of the high winds!
Tomorrow evening, I’m off to a beautiful old church in Palmerston Place (creating a grand stage) to see a fab theatre company Saltmine for the third consecutive year. They’re a hugely talented young Christian group who convey powerful moral messages about society in their polished and very artistic performances. This one’s called The Soul in the Machine and tells the story of George Williams, Founder of the YMCA –
“We are more than bodies to be fed to a machine. We are made for more than work. We have souls, we have spirits and somewhere in this dead city there must be a place for those things.”
London, 1844 – Centre of Empire, crucible of the New Jerusalem. Her gutters run with effluent and blood and her skies are choked with the smoke of a hundred factories and foundries, but above the smoke, the stars still shine. George Williams is a country boy who comes to the city to find his place in the world and to make his mark. Appalled by the spirit-crushing rhythms of the Worker’s life he fights to spread the light of God, and create a place where the soul can be nurtured.
I have high hopes.
Next week we begin the serious daily show-hopping, but of course, the streets are also strewn with market stalls and performers strutting their stuff for the millions of tourists cluttering up the city, to the everlasting frustration of the natives who’re simply trying to get on with their ordinary everyday lives.
But living where I do, I have the luxury of escaping the mayhem and sitting in the garden enjoying the peace and fragrance all about me with only the boom of the Red Arrows and the muted-by-distance explosions of the Tattoo fireworks to remind me of the frenzy a few miles away.
As I say, extremely fortunate.
The first time I died, I didn’t see God.
No light at the end of the tunnel. No haloed angels. No dead grandparents.
To be fair, I probably wasn’t a solid shoo-in for heaven. But, honestly, I kind of assumed I’d make the cut.
I didn’t see any fire or brimstone either.
Not even an endless darkness. Nothing.
One moment I was clawing at the ice above, skin numb, limbs burning. Then everything – the ice, the pain, the brightness filtering through the surface of the lake – just vanished. And then I saw the light.
A man in white who was decidedly not God stuck a penlight into each eye, once, twice, and pulled a tube the size of a garden hose from my throat. He spoke like I’d always imagined God would sound, smooth and commanding. But I knew it wasn’t God because we were in a room the color of custard, and I hate custard. Also, I counted no less that five tubes running through me. I didn’t think there’d be that much plastic in heaven.
Delaney Maxwell is 17 when she falls through a frozen lake and is trapped under the ice for eleven minutes; brought out as dead. A friend resuscitates her and somehow miraculously she survives, but she is not the girl she once was. The medical evidence points to brain damage; the lived reality is that she has a heightened awareness for impending death – ‘a knowledge, a sense, a purpose‘. But is her brain predicting the deaths or causing them? Whichever it is, when she responds to this irresistible extra sense pulling at her, she feels a great urge to try to stop the decline/accident/death, to save the person’s life. ‘I’d want to live. I’d want to try.‘
Troy Varga’s attitude is different. He was 19 and driving when he was involved in a terrible road collision in which both parents and his sister died. He ended up in a coma for three days himself; he too recovered against the odds. Like Delaney, he now has a sixth sense for death and even works in an assisted living facility. But he is still haunted by the memory of his sister wanting to be put out of her misery, and his powerlessness to help her. Now he wants to assist people to die, especially those who ‘don’t have the guts to do it themselves. They want to, but they can’t.‘
As you can see, the subject matter is very much in my line of work. Which is why I bought this book, Fractured, by Megan Miranda. I must confess the writing style isn’t really my bag (not her fault) but I did find the thinking behind the story intriguing: If I had the power to influence life and death, which way would I go? And as you know I like a book that challenges me.
Delaney also questions what it is to be human. The frozen lake has taken so much – her friendship with her lifelong pal Decker, her humanity, nearly her life. Her parents have changed because of her. Sometimes she even wonders just how alive she really is. She asks the doctor: ‘What makes me human, then?’ His reply? ‘We are the only species aware of our own mortality. We are the only ones who want to know why we live and why we die.‘ Hmmm.
ALERT! MY LAST COMMENTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
True to her own desire to fight for life, Delaney initially tries to warn people of their impending death and help save them, but the results are problematic and she’s forced to accept that she can’t. What’s more, she comes to realise that death is ‘not the worst thing that could happen‘. Living on in an insentient body, living with a heavy burden of guilt, prolonging pain and indignity, these are a form of entrapment, a version of hell.
Her focus changes to facilitating the best experience during the time that is left.
If you had just one day left, what would you want to do with it, I wonder?
Gone Girl is one of those much-hyped books that hit the headlines big time. OK, OK, I know, I know! I’m way behind the curve here; it did indeed come out in 2012 and I did buy my hardback copy ages ago, but I’ve only just got around to reading it this week. It’s attracted thousands of reviews (with its fair share of negative ones it must be admitted), won prestigious awards, and was dubbed ‘thriller of the year’. In my case I selected it now to serve a dual purpose: to psych myself gradually back into work mode after a couple of weeks of family priorities; and to hopefully counteract a recent run of disappointing reads.
So what did I make of it? Well, I can quite see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but my agenda as a writer is probably atypical, and I found it gripping.
The book is divided into three parts, each one combining all the ingredients of a psychological thriller with the intense dissection of a marriage, each one taking us deeper and further into the conundrum of a relationship and the dark capabilities of the human mind. It’s ingeniously constructed, smoothly paced, with unreliable narrators providing contradictions and plot twists to keep the reader guessing right to the end. Nothing is as it seems.
It begins well with two very distinctive narrator voices – Nick Dunne (American magazine writer until computers took over the world and the economy went down the plughole) and his wife Amy (writer of personality quizzes and reluctant model for a series of books about Amazing Amy). One paragraph in each voice to give a flavour:
Nick: My morning breath warmed the pillow, and I changed the subject in my mind. Today was not a day for second-guessing or regret, it was a day for doing. Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shuffling and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!). A culinary orchestra tuning up, clattering vigorously toward a finale, a cakepan drum rolling along the floor, hitting the wall with a cymballic crash. Something impressive was being created, probably a crepe, because crepes are special, and today Amy would want to cook something special.
It was our five-year anniversary.
Amy: Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying: I met a boy!
But I did. This is a technical, empirical truth. I met a boy, a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy.
She is the woman that every American girl (allegedly) aspires to be – beautiful, brilliant, inspiring, and very wealthy. He is the guy that all American men (allegedly) admire – handsome, funny, bright and charming. But on 5 July, their seemingly perfect world comes crashing down when Amy Elliott Dunne disappears, leaving behind a scene of overturned furniture and hastily mopped up blood, the iron still switched on, a half-pressed dress still on the board. It’s their fifth wedding anniversary.
They’ve had their problems: redundancy, ill parents, financial reversals, but Nick is appalled and bewildered (allegedly) when evidence mounts against him, clear motives are identified, and he becomes chief suspect in Amy’s supposed murder. Every year on their anniversary Amy has prepared a treasure hunt reflecting their in-jokes and secret knowledge of each other; this year the clues seem weighted in a sinister and damning way. The police, the press, friends, family, neighbours watch mesmerized as the Dunne’s seemingly charmed lives unravel to reveal a very different reality.
Any author skilled enough to hold all those timelines and lies and plot twists together and unpack a story as deviously compelling as this, deserves enormous admiration. I was constantly checking and double checking and worrying about links far less complicated than this in my own books, so it was no surprise to read that Gillian Flynn had pieces of paper and index cards taped all over the walls of her office as she wrote Gone Girl, and by the time she’d finished the room ‘looked like the lair of a serial killer‘ with ‘crazy words and questions fluttering from every surface‘. The end result is so tight and assured and beautifully dovetailed because of this meticulous attention to detail and thorough cross-checking. Top marks there.
I rarely watch films of books I’ve read – they never match with my imagined characters and places, and usually miss out vital components, but in this case I made an exception. Given the complexity of the story, surely no film could do justice to the printed version, all the unreliable elements, all the deceptions. But it can and it does*. Perhaps that’s in no small measure a tribute to the author who herself contributed to the screenplay. Her parents were both community-college professors – her mother teaching reading; her father, film, and according to her website Gillian ‘spent an inordinate amount of her youth nosing through books and watching movies‘. That could explain a lot. Whatever, Gillian Flynn certainly has an amazing talent; she’s indisputably a master of ‘dark and nasty‘!
I am now absorbed in the tactic of unreliable narrator …
*NB. The filmmakers need to take lessons in the properties of blood! The scenes involving copious amounts of it are entirely unconvincing.
Last week we took our youngest grandchildren to London.
As you do, we soaked up the usual history and took lots of photos of the famous sites and spun a few yarns to bring the past alive, but a couple of the attractions on our list turned out to be far too scary for them to even try. Fair enough; no pressure. I was a ridiculously fearful child myself with far too vivid an imagination that got me into a lot of trouble, so I sympathise.
But their reaction made me think about tolerance levels and the power of the imagination. Which led me to the extraordinary talent some writers have for sucking you in to a horrifying or disturbing world. It’s just words on a page, isn’t it? A mere 26 letters strung together in various combinations. Make-believe. But put together in just this way those words can blot out reality, take over your emotions, keep you on the edge of your seat dreading what’s coming but compelled to read on. That’s clever. That’s power.
So in this frame of mind my eye was caught by reviews such as ‘the go-to queen of contemporary brain-twisting crime‘; ‘the twistiest plots known to woman’, ‘everyday tales of warped psychology’. Intriguing. And who is this queen of twists? Sophie Hannah, that’s who. OK. Heard of her, not read any of her work. But I appreciate good plotting; I’m fascinated by psychology; I’ll give her a go. Broaden my horizons.
I chose a recent one: A Game for all the Family – billed as her ‘first standalone psychological thriller‘ on her website.
Justine Merrison has escaped from the rat-race of life in London (I’ve just been there so have an up to date sense of the pace and pressure of the metropolis) to an idyllic home in Devon (my neck of the woods so I know all about the very different pace of life and the picture postcard scenery).
Appropriate choice so far.
Justine plans to spend her days ‘doing Nothing. With a capital N. Not a single thing’, so she cuts off all connection to her old life as a stressed TV executive. But before long her teenage daughter, Ella, becomes withdrawn and miserable. She eventually confides that her ‘best friend in the whole world‘, George, has been expelled from school for stealing her coat, a coat which she gave him as a gift. Incensed by the injustice, Justine puts pressure on the headmistress to reconsider her decision, only to be told that there is not, and never was, a George in their school. So far so good. I’m hooked.
Then Justine sees a creative writing essay Ella has written and she knows at once this is no innocent teenage make-believe. Here is a darkly disturbed mind spinning a macabre tale of a dysfunctional family spiralling out of control. Where has this information come from? And how does it link to the mysterious George for whom she’s pining? Before long, anonymous calls start … then threats … then sinister events. Graves are dug. Justine is caught up in a whirl of frightening happenings, which are wilder than any drama she ever worked on in her former life. Just where do the boundaries of truth lie? And how can she protect her family from the forces gathering against them?
I was sufficiently curious to keep turning the pages, but I have to confess the ending disappointed. Why? Because I was looking for something less obvious given the build up. Because the ‘bad guy’ was always ‘the bad guy’. Because the psychology seemed suspect to me. Because it left me disappointed.
So no more Hannah novels for me then … Ahhh, now there’s the moral of the tale. How unfair of me. She’s an internationally famous, best-selling writer with a string of awards under her belt; she must be doing something right. Even this book has been well reviewed by some critics. And yet I’ve judged her on a first taste. I’d hate it if someone did that to me, so it’s only fair that, at some point, I give her a second chance.
I am resolved.
I love to read books that brilliantly evoke a time and place, where the language as well as the descriptions are perfectly pitched, where you can totally immerse yourself in a different world. You can feel the heat and vast expanses of Africa in this extract, can’t you?
When you drive through the Kalahari, there’s barely a tree or a rise; there’s nothing but a bleached-out view up ahead of you and a stunning silence. The air is so clear that objects miles away seem close and sound travels in a peculiar way, feeling close to you too. The sunburned plains shimmer beneath the blue African sky and you feel you’ll never reach the horizon. Occasionally you come across the rivelled carcass of a buck or the ghost of an elephant. As you sit there at the wheel, you become part of an infinite world, a dream world so beguiling that you’re tempted to fall asleep and never wake up. (Carolyn Slaughter in Before the Knife)
And sense the frustrations and vexations of post-war Britain here:
It’s 1920. A time when becoming ‘properly vexed’ is considered in poor taste, when ordinary people are beaten down by rules and queues, third sons are unexpectedly inheriting vast estates, flesh and hope had been splattered across the fields of Flanders, the women’s ability to have fun had been blown away with their husbands’ limbs and brains. (Adele Parks in Spare Brides)
You can lose yourself in another time.
So, this week I was intrigued to read about a new book published on July 1 to coincide with the centenary of the Great War; a book which could well lead to other re-creations of that terrible time. It’s called Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, by military historian Sarah Warne. She cleverly built up to publication day by tweeting out a single example of an epitaph from the war graves each day. They make poignant reading, putting humanity into mass slaughter, the individual into faceless thousands; lest we hide behind the inconceivable numbers and forget that each one was someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, father. Rather like the piles of shoes on display at Auschwitz, or the field of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted at the Tower of London to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, they bring us face to face with the gruesome reality.
And I was fascinated to hear the history of these short tributes. The Imperial War Graves Commission were so set on fairness and fittingness that they did their best to ensure money, rank and privilege did not show on any of the graves; the dead heroes would lie together, equal before God and men. But in the end the Commission gave way to pressure and conceded that bereaved relatives could if they wished append a message of their choice, provided it was no more than 66 letters/spaces.
If you’ve ever visited the war graves in Europe you’ll know the awesome reverence that hangs over them. I find the inscription ‘A Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’, very moving. It always makes me think of my uncle, who was in all probability blown to smithereens on the Somme, during the week of his 21st birthday, although my grandmother was simply told he was missing, presumed dead.
A tiny fragment of his body could, I presume, lie in one such grave.
His name (Nevard HP) is etched onto the memorial at Thiepval, but there was to be no marked grave, no 66 letter epitaph for him.
His memory lives on in the family’s hearts and history.