Hazel McHaffie

thriller writing

I Saw a Man

Well, it just goes to show – reading is such a subjective experience.

I turned to I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers because it’s billed as ‘the most stylish thriller’ … ‘taut’ … ‘suspense almost physically frustrating’ … ‘exemplary thriller, clever, classy, slick’ … ‘extraordinarily tense and powerful’ …all the kinds of accolades we’d all like to receive about our writing, huh? And just the masterclass to help me make my own current writing more taut and unputdownable.

Or not.

What a let down. OK, the essential thread of suspense is there – a bereaved man, a writer, Michael Turner, walking into his neighbours’ house because he sees the back door open and worries that intruders have entered it. Once inside, he’s distracted by a sense of his late wife’s presence which lures him upstairs into hitherto unknown territory. Up there, he unwittingly causes and witnesses a terrible accident, but can’t do anything about it without revealing his own trespass. The knowledge haunts him. Meanwhile his neighbour is also harbouring a massive burden of guilt, lying about his activities. Who will do or say what? Whose secrets will come to light first? What will the repercussions be? And hovering in the background, is the man who pressed the button that resulted in the collateral death of Michael’s wife.

So far, so I-want-to-know-what-happened. But for me, it felt hollow. Far too much description and backstory slowing the pace. The characters spineless and selfish. The ‘crimes’ unworthy of so much weight. Some of the main threads going nowhere. I’m sure these criticisms are in large part a measure of how much I’m currently agonising over the balance in my own domestic thriller, but authors are always critical readers, and I make no apology.

Although I’d personally take issue with some of the simplistic sentence construction, there are, however, a number of beautifully lyrical passages, commensurate with Sheer’s reputation as a poet.

‘London was blistered under a heatwave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun.’

‘Their flasks of coffee, two hours cold, stood on a shelf …’

 And he weaves in some occasional surprisingly insightful wisdom. Not surprising maybe in a book about how men cope with grief.

On the effect of sudden brutal loss:
‘Caroline was dead and he’d been left holding the shell of the truth, bereft not only of her, but also the man she’d been making him.’

On the symbiosis of reading and writing:
‘Is a story half-cooked,’ he asked her, ‘if it’s only been written but not read?’
‘Absolutely!’
He laughed, thinking she was joking, but then saw that she wasn’t.
‘Without the reader it’s just thoughts on a page,’ she said. ‘Imagination in ink. A printed tautology.’
‘Tautology? How?’
‘Well, a repetition, then. Of what was in the writer’s mind when they wrote it. But when it’s read …’
‘Yes?’
‘Well, then the words gather a new imagery, don’t they? The meaning gathers new association. It’s like a chemical reaction. It all depends on how they react with the reader, their life, their mind.’

And that’s where I part company from the gushing critics. My chemical reaction with this book fizzled rapidly like a damp squib. Sorry, Mr Sheers. Your credentials may put you way beyond my reach, but your idea of tension and suspense is vastly different from mine.

One of the things agents often say to writers is, “I didn’t love your story enough to fight for it.’ Would an agent have loved I Saw a Man enough if an unknown author had submitted it? Hmmm, I doubt it very much. But I’m not reading it as an agent, and it’s given me a different and helpful perspective and yardstick for my own book, so that’s a bonus. No reading is wasted on a writer.

Back to my own novel. And I am relishing the terrific help of my experts. A lead paediatrician in Child Protection, and two accountants, and one of my long-suffering literary critics, have all given me invaluable guidance and feedback. I’m galloping along surrounded by all this evidence of their support and friendship and life experience.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Thrillers and master storytellers

The Times once said of Harlan Coben‘s writing that it had ‘lighthearted lessons for life sprinkled throughout‘ but that it wasn’t ‘about preaching, it is about catching you by those short hairs on the back of your neck.

And that’s what makes a thriller. That elusive something that I’m struggling to identify and capture for my own current novel.

Given that over 70 million of Coben’s books are in print worldwide and the last ten consecutive novels all debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, I think it’s fair to say this is one author who definitely knows how to get a message across!

it’s actually weirdly appropriate that I’ve been reading The Innocent at the moment. It’s about somebody waiting nine years to exact revenge. I’ve been waiting rather a lot myself recently – for appointments, for test results, in hospitals, in GP waiting rooms, for advice – not nine years certainly, but long enough to make an absorbing book a godsend. And long enough to know that a brilliant reputation and a sustained plot-line that keeps you turning the pages, can compensate for a lot.

OK, Coben’s relentlessly staccato sentences, his use of the second person POV, in-house American police jargon, mile-long list of characters, don’t exactly float my boat. And I’m not going for mass shootings and exotic dancers and police corruption. But what does grab me is this author’s ability to create suspense, to plant cliff hangers at the end of most chapters, weave an intensely complex but authentic series of connections, (the inside of his brain must be like an immense circuit board!) and make me really really want to know why someone is sending ex-con paralegal Matt Hunter incriminating video clips … what his beautiful wife is really up to … why a dead nun, Sister Mary Rose, is found to have breast implants … why the FBI are involved … and who is going to come out of this whole mess alive.

Yep, this is thriller writing. I can quite see how and why it works. Question is: can I do it myself? Only time will tell. But I’m going to persevere. And keep studying the experts. Six Cobens down, five to go.

And the way things are going right now I might be doing more reading than planned! Here in Central Scotland we’ve been on red alert (the highest level which includes danger to life) for the last two days. Siberian winds and snow, unbelievably low temperatures, air and land traffic at a standstill. It’s causing major disruption to millions (no exaggeration) but looks stunningly beautiful to those of us who aren’t stuck on motorways for thirteen hours, or skidding to work in a care home, or battling through drifts to reach an ill or vulnerable person. I dare not venture out on a photo-shoot to capture just how deep the snow is, so this snap of one protected corner of the garden must suffice.

Stay safe, folks.

 

, , ,

Comments

Thrillers – lessons learned

OK, with a pile of thrillers of various kinds now read and analysed, I’m a bit closer to refining my own choices for the current novel. What have I decided so far?

Main narrative thread
The issue must be one I personally care about. And I need to be clear who I’m trying to appeal to. A tale of individuals seeking personal justice or dealing with their own family dramas holds my interest more than stories about money laundering or righting organisational wrongs.

Main protagonist(s)
The lead doesn’t have to be likeable but the reader must care about his/her fate so the character needs to be carefully drawn and handled, with a plausible and intriguing backstory.
His/her motivation must be worthy so readers will root for him/her.
He/she must be up against tremendous odds.

Secondary characters
Too many tangential stories and secondary characters run the risk of losing narrative tension and interest. (Or am I a wimp when it comes to holding umpteen names and storylines in my head?)

Style
Short sentences and staccato prose can help build tension but lose impact if used too often. Sentence structure, length and complexity need to be varied.
Grammatically incomplete sentences also need to be used with caution; they can hold up the pace of a story.

Action
The psychology of the characters must be authentic and plausible. (See writers like Jonathan Kellerman who’s a psychologist himself and uses a psychologist to help solve crimes, or Linda Fairstein who was a prosecutor focusing on crimes of violence against women and children and really understands police procedure.)

Accuracy
If the story includes historical reality or geographical locations, the facts must be spot on accurate.

So, with that foundation, I’m now concentrating on fleshing out the profiles of my own characters.

, , , , ,

Comments

Blue sky thinking

Ten days of wall-to-wall visitors staying chez nous effectively put paid to focused writing, but happily the brain has still been ticking over in the region of the back-burner.

As I strolled in beautiful gardens …

and wandered through castles and mansions …

the plot thickened for my current novel (working title Killing me Softly).

Summary of non-spoiler points to weave in
* The reader doesn’t know who to trust
* More than one character doesn’t get what he/she wants and their situations just get worse and worse
* Authority figures are confused
* Conflict between the good guys further muddies the water

All elements of storytelling that increase tension and keep the reader gripped. Ahhah, itemising them reinforces one salient conclusion: the book is still on track for being a thriller then! Good to clarify that.

I anticipated this book would take some time to write, since I’m researching technique as well as specific subject matter, but maybe not as long as Archie Cotterell‘s novel which came out this month. As his wife said: ‘Everyone says they want to leave the City and write a novel … but I married the idiot who did.’ It has taken 17 years for him to get What Alice Knew published – as long as James Joyce took to write Finnegan’s Wake. I’m devoutly hoping I don’t have to struggle that long! Time will tell.

, , , , , , , ,

Comments

Spinning out of control …

Eebie jeebie! Life’s on a steep slope and gathering frightening momentum this week. Where are the brakes …? Anyone seen the safety nets?

Path to Straiton Pond

Outside, hard frosts have made works of incredible beauty out of ordinary spiders’ webs around here, and I couldn’t help but feel an affinity with them. Unbelievably strong, amazingly intricate, yet so fragile if touched carelessly. A bit like the ideas the brain conjures up in creative mode. So, why is the writing life more than usually frenetic at the moment?

Well, to begin with it’s Book Week Scotland; I’m doing a couple of author events locally for that. Lovely to go out there and meet real live people who read my books, and want to know about why and how I do what I do, and wonderful librarians who are so enthusiastic and dedicated to their task of encouraging reading, but space needs to be found to prepare mentally for each one.

Web wrapped around finialI’m also writing not one, not two, but three books simultaneously right now. Three, do I hear you shriek? Yep, three. Completely unprecedented, as regular followers will know. Madness, probably. So why break my own rules?

Well, Christmas is fast approaching, so I absolutely MUST complete the grandchildren’s annual story/play due to be enacted on 28 December to a full house. I need to order props and make costumes before then, and allow for postal hiatuses, so first I have to finalise the text to be sure about what I still need/want. In spare moments, and by way of light relief, I’m also making monster heads – details are top secret (suffice to say that hair and glitter and strange white particles linger stubbornly in the warp and weft of certain carpets). And one whole room is definitely off limits to all, no exceptions.

Frosted cobwebThen my ongoing novel, Killing me Gently, mustn’t be allowed to lose momentum. Pleased to say I’m still with the thriller genre on that one. However, as a safety valve, I’m letting the back burner dictate the pace of this book at the moment, only sitting down to actually commit words to the document when they’re too insistent to ignore, or jotting down thoughts that wake me in the night.

Web tailored to fence postAnd the third book? It’s brand spanking new, jostling for attention at crazy o’clock, keeping me at the desk long past the witching hour. It’s got a working title of Listen and is designed as a shorter story in my usual vein (contemporary fiction set in the world of medical ethics) which can be offered as a free download to give potential new readers a window into my books. I’m having a ball writing this! It’s about a Professor of Medical Ethics who goes on a train journey from Aberdeen to Penzance where a crisis awaits her … I now know some amazing statistics about high speed trains! And about atrocious experiments performed on black people in the 50s in America. Intrigued? Watch this space.

I keep reminding myself … this is all entirely self inflicted!

 

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Discombobulated thinking

Coimbra University LibraryIt was enough of a shock coming from 28 degrees in Portugal last week (and yes, the sky really was this blue) to snow on the Pentlands here this week (currently in the minuses).

First snow on the Pentland HillsThen, as if the Brexit vote wasn’t bad enough back in June, this week the unthinkable, the unbelievable, has happened on the other side of the Atlantic. A staggeringly unqualified, openly racist, xenophobic, mysogynist has been chosen as the next president – yes, chosen! – to lead the world’s most powerful nation. I felt so despairing yesterday morning when I woke to this news I had to tramp the streets and divert my attention to doing something practical to help the aged and lonely and disadvantaged amongst us. No mood for writing anything more exacting than the annual Christmas story for the grandchildren.

So nothing erudite today. I’ll just share with you something I came across during the week. As you know, I’m still considering writing a thriller this time around, so my attention was instantly caught by Doug Johnstone’s five tips for writing an unputdownable novel.

In essence they are:

  1. Start the novel in the thick of the action with your central character. No preamble, no prologue.
  2. Cut all the extraneous detail to make the language crisp and sparse. No gentle musing or scene setting.
  3. Give the reader breathing space, a moment of respite from the fast action, to give the story emotional punch. Allow the characters to reflect on their experiences occasionally, but keep it brief.
  4. Vary sentence length. Mix staccato statements with longer poetic flowing passages.
  5. Use dialogue but sparingly. Arrive as late as possible to the conversation and leave as early as you decently can.

Hmmm. Interesting, and slightly different from other advice I’ve read. Sounds good, though, and lots of food for thought in my case. As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium I’ll be testing out the wisdom of these tips.

In the meantime, let’s just pray for the American people and world peace, huh?

, , , , , ,

Comments

Amazing talent

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festivals, I’m feeling overawed by the enormous breadth of talent I’ve been exposed to lately. So it seems appropriate to home in on another aspect of human endeavour currently impressing me greatly: the skill that goes into creating a well-crafted thriller. I could select any of the books I’ve just read but I’ll take the last one – which happens to be the meatiest!

The WinnerWhen I first selected The Winner by David Baldacci off my shelves I confess I was very inclined to return it rapidly. 565 pages … hmmm! And the layout is strangely off-putting. How glad I am that my conscience made me resist that temptation and give the book a fair crack of the whip. Almost 600 pages it might be but not one of them is surplus to requirement. Not for a second did I lose interest or skim a page. Coffees went cold, meals were late, bedtime extended way past a sensible hour. The pace, the tension, never slacken – totally gripping throughout. Why?

Dense textWell, let’s look at why.

  1. The protagonists are believable and well-rounded, their true characters emerging gradually as the story unravels. And they are multi-faceted, with strengths and weaknesses, attributes and flaws, appeal and unlikeable traits. So, LuAnn Tyler is a dirt-poor young woman shacked up in a down-at-heel trailer with an unskilled, unemployed drunk, Duane Harvey, who unbeknownst to her is dabbling in drugs. They have a baby daughter, Lisa, whom LuAnn adores and would give her life for. She’s a brilliant mother. She’s also very beautiful. Jackson on the other hand is a cunning manipulator with a brilliant mind, no scruples and no moral code. He is a master of disguise who has the power to infiltrate any world he chooses, and such is his reach that we start to suspect every new character and startle at every sudden appearance, fearing his malevolent influence.
  2. The motives of the main characters are mixed, complex and intriguing; nothing stereotypical here. So, for example, LuAnn’s conscience baulks at being involved in anything illegal but when she finds the father of her child dying and she herself has hit – probably fatally – Duane’s murderer, she realises she’s in a hopeless situation: if she does the right thing she’ll be clapped in jail and her baby girl will be taken away from her. For Lisa’s sake she must accept Jackson’s dubious offer. And even when she becomes enormously wealthy, her conscience dictates she must pay back to society in some way. But when the final challenge comes she’s not averse to capitalising on the proceeds of crime.
  3. We’re rightly wary of Jackson from the outset, but Baldacci ratchets up the tension by continually, incrementally, broadening the range of the man’s evil. We learn more and more about his modus operandi until we are fascinated by his ingenuity, fearfully anticipating his next devious move, and seeing him behind every shadow. Even though we actually learn his true identity on page 481, there is still no end to the depths to which he will sink to protect himself and his schemes, and we live in a state of high alert dreading what’s to come.
  4. On the other hand, the novel appeals to our better nature too. Flawed though LuAnn undoubtedly is, we want to see her win through in the end. She engenders sympathy and devotion in the people she meets: Charlie leaves behind his shady past and becomes her staunchest ally; Matthew Riggs forsakes his anonymity and quiet life to protect her. And LuAnn’s trust once gained becomes a precious commodity. We too care about her welfare.
  5. The plotting is so assured and clever that the improbable seems believable. The depiction of national security issues, the detail of each disguise, each manouevre, each scheme, each flight from retribution as the characters fight for supremacy or justice, keep the reader riveted and the pages simply fly by.
  6. The pace never flags. No saggy middle, no anticlimax, here.
  7. The story line is far-reaching and challenging, involving matters of international security, government shenanigans, personal crusades. Your imagination goes into over-drive wondering, what if …?

I could go on, but enough for now. Baldacci inhabits his characters brilliantly. He inspires a horrifying blend of reactions – unexpected empathy, dread, subtle identification, revulsion. And we have to ask ourselves, in LuAnn’s situation, what would I have done? Would I have her devotion, her courage, her determination? Would my priorities have been hers? Would I commit a crime for the greater good of those I love? Charlie and Matthew are convinced anyone would have done exactly what she did; now I know LuAnn, I have to ask again: Would I?

What I DO know is I’d love to be able to write with Baldacci’s assurance and cleverness. He totally deserves the lavish praise of the critics.

Praise for Baldacci

PS. I found one tiny flaw: a mistake in the name on p524! One of the hazards of using the same initial for two main characters I suspect. It surprised me though, given the stature of the author and its professional production and the number of eyes that must have checked this book.

 

, , , , , ,

Comments

After the fireworks

Well, the 2016 Festivals certainly ended in fine style on Monday with a few thousand pounds worth of fireworks exploding spectacularly over Edinburgh Castle on a still dark night perfect for purpose.

Festival fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Festival fliersNow the millions of flyers and posters are being swept from the streets; the artistes have left the city’s hotels and guest houses; mysterious venues become their alter egos again; the buses return to running on time; the air in Princes Street is no longer riven with native American music; the good people of Edinburgh heave a collective sigh of relief.

As you know, I’ve enjoyed dipping into the huge diversity of amazing opportunities available in this magical city. But now it’s time to knuckle down to some serious work.

 

ThrillersBack to the masterclass in thriller-writing I spoke about last week. My attention has turned to analysing other new-to-me authors’ work: Heart Collector by Jacques Vandroux, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; The Winner by David Baldacci.

All helpful in reinforcing the essential elements I outlined last week, but also in highlighting things that don’t work for me:

Names which sound/look very similar; characteristics which are too similar. When you have a cast of many, it’s hard to hold them all in your head. Distinctive attributes help to keep them sharply defined.

Too many foreign place names.

Knowing too much too soon – reduces the tension too early.

Too many dates and flashbacks that require the reader to flick back and forth, calculating ages and years. A thriller’s meant to be tense, keeping you moving forward searching for answers.

Too many lies from an unreliable narrator; so many that they muddle the brain and the plotline.

But it’s also been comforting to see that the thriller author does not need a degree in jurisprudence! I’m hanging on to that thought at least. So many stories in this genre hinge around police procedures and court wrangles, but there are other ways to approach crimes.

Also I am newly aware that even in the staccato sentences and fast pace and intense action of thrillers, building up a detailed picture of each character over time adds to the reader’s engagement with them.

The more I read the more I’m impressed by the skill behind these books … and the more daunting my own task becomes. I’m forced back to the question: Could I do it? or maybe it’s: Could I do it? Jury’s still out on this one.

 

 

 

 

, , , , , , ,

Comments