Stuck getting that thriller manuscript to be, well, thrilling? Check out this list of advice and recommendations from 39 best-selling authors who write thrillers and suspense! Includes writing advice and favorite tools from Janet Evanovich, Lee Goldberg, Tess Gerritsen, James Patterson, J.D. Robb, Tom Clancy, Faye Kellerman, Michael Connelly, J.A. Jance, Lee Child, Kathy Reichs, John Sandford, Karin Slaughter, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Cornwell, Rachel Abbott, A.K. Alexander, D.A. Bale, Brett Battles, James Scott Bell, Robert Bidinotto, Russell Blake, Cheryl Bradshaw, Jack Bunker, Robin Burcell, Diane Capri, Rebecca Forster, Michael Genelin, Joel Goldman, Helen Hanson, Tom Kakonis, Dick Lochte, Jon Land, J.F. Penn, Ann Voss Peterson, Philip Reed, Zoe Sharp, Alexandra Sokoloff, and Simon Wood.
39 THRILLER AND SUSPENSE WRITERS SHARE WRITING ADVICE AND THEIR FAVORITE TOOLS AND TIPS FOR WRITING AND EDITING
01 J.F. Penn (a.k.a. Joanna Penn)
Scrivener is the one writing tool I would struggle to write without these days. I don’t write in order–so I use it to plan, write, and then reorder my scenes later.
02 Joel Goldman
Best tip: Write a detailed, narrative outline of the story from start to finish before you begin writing the book. I resisted and rejected doing this through my first 11 books. I changed my mind when I wrote All In, my most recent book, with Lisa Kline. The synergy and creativity from the collaboration were terrific and the narrative outline was a fabulous tool for working out plot and character issues in a way that made the actual writing much more fun and easier. The outline can’t be a straightjacket, but it can be a life-saver.
03 Rebecca Forster
Writing a thriller is intricate–so I break down my editing by using an image of a pyramid broken into thirds. The bottom represents the foundation of your story and characters: Read your manuscript once focusing on foundation; if it’s not solid, your story will crumble. The middle is continuity: Read for red herrings, plot holes, threads that aren’t tied up. The top of the pyramid represents style: Edit for consistent character voices, smooth out narrative and exposition, then add your personal voice to the overall work.
04 Russell Blake
I use MS Word and Excel for writing. I lay out the entire book as a series of one sentence chapter descriptions, running in cells from top to bottom. Then I put characters across the top and X where they appear in chapters so I can keep track of them and ensure they appear with sufficient regularity for the reader to remember them. I’ll also occasionally devote a cell per chapter to what the motivation of the chapter is–why it’s there; its purpose (as opposed to what’s happening in it). That enables me to cut excess idiocy. And finally, I color code the chapter descriptions if there’s an action beat, or a reversal, or a major event, to ensure I have sufficient movement and beats in the story.
05 Ann Voss Peterson
Often, we write things into our first draft that are there for the sole purpose of building our first draft. Excessive and repetetive internal monologue designed to remind us of our characters motivations. Details we thought were important or cool when we were doing research that add nothing to the story. Summing up a characters purpose, thoughts, or feelings before we go on to show them. I like to call these things “story scaffolding.” Sometimes we need it to build our first draft, but it’s important to take down that scaffolding, strengthen the flaws it concealed, and clean the story up when the building stage is finished.
The most useful tool for editing is a single word: WHY? Why is my character doing this? Why is my character doing this now? Why is my character doing this here? Why does my character react this way? Why am I writing this scene from this character’s point of view? Why am I choosing these details to describe what my character experiences? Why did I include this? Why? Why? Why?
Writing is creative, editing is deliberate. If you don’t ask why, your reader will.
06 Dick Lochte
By far, my favorite tool for writing is a research book that, nine times out of ten, provides the precise name of any object you’re trying to describe. The title is What’s What: A Visual Glossary of the Physical World, edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher. Unfortunately, the last update was 1994 and it’s out of print, but there are used copies out there and they’re worth finding. Especially if you want to know the difference between a theater’s iron curtain and its grand drape, or if the object a dentist is aiming at your hero’s mouth is an explorer or a hand excavator. DK publishes the Ultimate Visual Dictionary, which is only four or five years old and almost as good as WW.
For editing, I use a Word software supplement from Editorium called Editor’s Toolkit Plus. It offers more editing options than I’ve had time to explore. But mainly I use it for automatic removal of double spaces after words, showing and tracking revisions, turning regular dashes into em and en dashes, standardize formatting. Very handy in prepping old Word files for conversion to new eBooks.
07 A.K. Alexander (a.k.a. Michele Scott)
If I had to say there is a tool that I use, I’m going with an outline. I’m pretty old school: I start out with an idea on a legal pad and go with a what-if question and begin developing with pen and paper. I then write out character sketches, and after that a plot line–then, a pretty detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. I write a few scenes a day that inspire me and work that way.
08 Jon Land
What’s my favorite tool for writing? That’s easy: the imagination. That’s where everything starts and continues, from beginning all the way through the end. Trusting your imagination to do the work for you, to craft a a riveting story about people the reader cares about, is the most tool there is. Because if you don’t have it, nothing else matters.
09 D.A. Bale
The most invaluable tool in the writing arsenal is simply knowing your characters beforehand. By knowing I don’t mean hair color, eye color, height/weight, etc. Ask them some deeper questions (yes, ask THEM). What makes them tick? What has happened in their past that affects their present? Fears? Loves? Disappointments? Hopes for the future? Create a template for each character and write it all down. Exploring these will allow the characters to come across the written page as three-dimensional instead of stick figures. They will contain a depth and richness that arm you, the writer, with the ability to portray them so the reader will gain understanding as to their motivations within the story–the ‘why,’ not just the ‘what’.
My favorite editing tool is my critique group. It takes time and energy, but finding a good critique group is the best first-round edit your novel will thank you for. Then take those critiques and edit to garner your second draft. Then edit again. Better yet, contact me for an editing run. My final edit just before publishing is the best way I’ve found to discover those pesky little boo-boos that disappear into the ether, only to pop up again when you download your published book. There’s a program I use to convert my book to a MOBI file so I can read it on my Kindle before it hits the virtual shelf. Those words with transpositions, dropped letters, and missing or duplicate words stick out like a Kardashian butt.
10 Michael Genelin
As well, there is an Ezra Pound comment I keep in mind: “Less is more.” So, if there’s any question, I cut it. That’s particularly hard to do with some segments I may love for all the wrong reasons. We have to learn, as the rather grim expression goes, to “Kill our Babies.” I make special trips through my manuscripts asking the simple question: Does any given piece of prose do the novel justice? If I can’t hear a “yes” to that simple question, out it comes.
I also used to write everything out longhand. The agonizing process of editing was a killer facing all that written pagination any novel generates. I welcomed the computer age–and I now ‘longhand’ as little as possible. I don’t think I could presently write any substantial piece without the computer.
11 Zoe Sharp
Keep a summary of your novel as you write it. Different from the outline–if you work from one, or even if you don’t–the summary is the actual shape the story takes as it goes onto the page. I keep a note not only of the plot as it unfolds, but how much time goes by, if it’s raining, if any of the characters are carrying injuries, or if I’m laying in a plot thread I need to remember to pick up later. I do a paragraph for each scene break or chapter, and also jot down if there’s a time gap between scenes/chapters. When you come to the editing stage, any major alterations–adding a subplot, removing an extraneous character, etc.–can be worked out on the summary rather than having to work with the whole typescript, which can be very unwieldy by that stage.
12 James Scott Bell
My favorite writing tool is Scrivener. I love the many purposes it serves, up to and including formatting for eBooks.
13 Robin Burcell
By far my favorite tool is Scrivener, though I transfer to Word before sending into publishers. I love the ability to drag and drop scenes or chapters as I see fit. It’s changed the way I write. Using the storyboard feature, I can see at a glance where each scene or chapter is, and if that is the best place for it. And since my typical thrillers are international, I have to deal with different time zones. The note card feature on the story board or index allows me to enter my time zones so that I can see at a glance where in the world I am and at what time. So if I have a character picking up the phone at 8 AM in Amsterdam to call the U.S., I need to know the time in Washington, D.C. (Before noting my time zones on the index cards, I had characters calling a business office in the middle of the night.) I also color code those index cards to match which character point of view I’m writing in. It really helps to know who’s on camera at any given time.
14 Brett Battles
I’ll give you two: The first is commitment—to your project and your craft. For me, this means setting a schedule and keeping to it. Do I veer off it on occasion? Absolutely, but I always bring myself back. Otherwise I might never finish anything. Second is finding an editor you trust. I don’t mean someone who will just agree with every idea you throw out, but someone who will push you, and question the choices you’ve made that need to be questioned, and help you to tell the absolutely best story you can.
15 Helen Hanson
Before releasing a manuscript into the wild, I need to hear it. The sultry voice on my computer reads the entire story to me, so I can cull any dissonant phrases such as, “Chester gestured.” It looked well enough on the screen. But when I heard it aloud, I winced. To me the lyrical quality of my words—their rhythm—is as important as the information they convey.
16 Philip Reed
I use any and all tools to complete a book. When writer’s block strikes, I’ve even written longhand on a legal pad and then typed it into my computer editing as I go. In the past, I sometimes dictated chapters using Dragon Naturally Speaking. I sometimes set Word to flag the passive voice which I have a bad habit of slipping into. Recently, I’ve used a program called Grammerly.com which runs along with the program. It’s intrusive at times; other times it catches things that makes revising easier. But the fact of the matter is that computers can’t write books, they can only take out some of the grunt work.
17 Cheryl Bradshaw
My favorite tool is my outstanding team, which includes my agent, editors, proofers, beta readers, formatters, my street team, etc. Having a team around me who I trust to offer valuable input and advice takes my writing to the next level.
18 Robert Bidinotto
I use and recommend a novel-writing software package called Write It Now, also known as “WIN.” I’ve used WIN to organize, structure, outline, and draft my thrillers, and I really love it. In fact, I don’t know what I’d do without it, because my stories have so many complicated elements and details to keep track of.
Like many writers, I used to have my project notes and inspirations scattered everywhere—scribbled on pieces of paper, in notebooks that I’d carry around with me, archived in Word files on my computer. Keeping track of everything was maddening. Novel-writing software like WIN allows you to pull everything together, organize it all, and keep it accessible in just a few clicks.
But it’s not just a fancy filing system. WIN has many great features to help you structure, outline, and draft your novel, too—like a graphic storyboard; a story timeline that’s generated automatically from your list of plot events; and charts and “mind maps” to visualize and track complicated character relationships. Creativity generators help get you past “writer’s block” and produce fresh plot ideas, character names (from a vast multi-nationality database), and even character personalities (based on “archetypes” from Myers-Briggs and Joseph Campbell). Another cool feature is a database of cultural details from a number of historical times and places. That’s useful if you are writing period fiction or flashbacks. The latest version, “WIN5,” lets you produce a completely formatted manuscript, and it also adds epub export capability, so you can create ebooks right from the manuscript.
Many writers swear by a similar program, Scrivener, but it has a steeper learning curve. Users tell me they first have to spend a lot of time watching tutorials or studying manuals to really learn how to use it. By contrast, Write It Now is intuitive to learn and anyone can start using it in almost no time.
You can go to the website (RavensheadServices.com) to download the program and try out for free. You have to pay for it in order to save or print your work. I think writers should go give it a try.
19 Diane Capri
I write in Word. I’ve been using Word since 2000 because it is the industry standard. Before that, I used WordPerfect, which I still prefer but don’t use. Word is the program my agent, publishers, and formatters require, so it made sense to learn it and to stick with it. I’ve tried other programs, but the conversion back to Word is always glitchy. For me, it’s better to stick to the one program I’m going to need in the end anyway.
20 Simon Wood
Always have a second reader. I come from an engineering background and every design went through a checker and an approver. I take the same approach to writing and nothing goes out to no one until it’s got its blessing from my second reader.
21 Alexandra Sokoloff
Without a doubt, the most important tool I use as a writer is the Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure I learned to use when I worked as a screenwriter. The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about 10-15 minutes of film. The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished, so early screenwriters incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel and built to a cliffhanger climax.
That rhythm was locked in by the even more rigid requirements of television, and all of us have seen it in action hundreds and thousands of times, in all of those movies and TV shows we’ve watched in our lifetimes. So as an author, you need to be aware that your reader or audience unconsciously expects a climax every 15 minutes in a movie – which translates to every 50 pages or so in a book. Books have more variation in length, obviously, but for a 400-page book, you’re looking at climaxing about every 50 pages, with the bigger climaxes coming around p. 100 (Act I Climax) p. 200 (Midpoint Climax), p. 300 (Act II Climax), and somewhere close to the end.
Most authors are aware of the three-act structure but not so much the eight-sequence model – so that’s why I teach it, blog it, and write books about it!
22 Tom Kakonis
23 Rachel Abbott
I use Scrivener to write the first version of my book. It is very easy to re-order scenes, and an automatic table of contents down the side of the screen allows me to jump to any location in the story whenever I need to.
One of the most useful features is ‘collections.’ My stories tend to have several different threads and it’s important to check that there isn’t any ‘seepage’ of information between threads It also helps to make sure that individual threads–such as the investigation–are logical. The ‘collections’ function allows you read all related scenes in isolation of the rest of the story, and I use this extensively with up to ten different ‘collections’ of chapters.
There are many features in Scrivener that are invaluable aids to writers and that ideally I would use right up to the final draft. Sadly, editors tend not to use Scrivener, so after my novel has been off for its first edit I’m back to using Word–and to rediscovering the frustrations of having to scroll through to find a specific chapter, instead of it just being one click away.
24 Jack Bunker
When I finish a day’s work, I email it to my Kindle account. Reading the text on my Kindle makes it seem more like a real book (that someone else wrote) and less like what I’ve been looking at all day. It also serves a few other purposes. One, it saves the version(s) in the event my computer freaks out (has happened before). Two, and no less important, when I read and find things to fix, I just use the highlight or notes feature. Third, I can take it to bed easily and have a final look, which, I’ve found, is a great way to stay in the story and wake up in the zone. Lastly, sometimes I’ll just turn on the read-text feature and have the text read to me. You’d be surprised how often this catches a tiny error that your own eye can just skip over.
25 Patricia Cornwell
Usually the last thing I do before I go to bed is sit at my computer and just take a look at the last thing I was writing. It’s almost like I tuck my characters in at night. I may not do much, but I’m reminding myself: This is the world I’m living in right now, and I’ll go to sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.
Source: A Better Approach to “Write Every Day” (Writers Digest)
26 Lee Goldberg
27 Tess Gerritsen
Source: Any Way That Works For You (Tess Gerritsen)
28 James Patterson
I try to put myself in every scene that I’m writing. I try to be there. I try to put the kind of detail in stories that will make people experience what the characters are experiencing, within reason.
Source: World’s Best-Selling Author James Patterson on How to Write an Unputdownable Story (Fast Company)
29 J.D. Robb (a.k.a. Nora Roberts)
In general I do a first draft fairly quickly. Just to get the story down without looking back–I don’t worry about fixing or fiddling. Once I have that initial draft, I know my characters more intimately, know the plot line more cohesively, so I can go back to page one and go through it all again, fleshing out, fixing little problems, finding where I went wrong and adjusting it, or where I went right and expanding it. Adding texture, sharpening the prose.
Source: An interview with Nora Roberts (BookBrowse)
30 Tom Clancy
You learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired–it’s hard work.
Source: Tom Clancy on Writing The Hunt for Red October (AMC)
31 Faye Kellerman
I think of a character’s description as something akin to scene-setting or stage-setting. It’s not there for the sake of simply providing details. I want to give the reader an idea of where a scene is taking place; who the main characters are; and what they look like. I like to leave a little bit to the reader’s imagination. But if you set the scene, what follows is not distracting. Once the scene is there, the characters take over with their dialogue, but they are placed in position for the reader.
Source: ‘Murder 101’ A Talk With Faye Kellerman (Huffington Post)
32 Michael Connelly
You have to write every day. Whatever we do in life, we get better at it the more we do it–practice makes perfect. Sometimes you can only do it for 15 minutes, but that’s still fine, because to even write for 15 minutes you have to churn your imagination and get the wheels rolling again.
Source: Michael Connelly Advicebyte #1: Tips For Young Writers (ThinkTalk Networks)
33 J.A. Jance
If you want to be a writer, write what you love and respect your readers. If you look down your nose at genre fiction and are only writing a mystery or a romance because you think that’s an easy way to get published, think again. Readers will know you’re sneering at them, and they’ll stay away in droves.
Source: J.A. Jance’s Writing Tips (The Strand)
34 Lee Child
Source: Jack Reacher Week: The Perfect Book (and how to write it), by Lee Child (The Sun)
35 Kathy Reichs
In some ways, it gets easer as you continue to write a series with the same core characters. You get to know your characters better. But it also gets harder because when someone picks up a Temperance Brennan book for the first time, you have to introduce the main premise and the core characters. But, on the other hand, it may be the 18th book someone’s reading, so you don’t want to bore that reader with repetitious details.
Source: ‘Speaking in Bones,’ A Conversation With Kathy Reichs (Huffington Post)
36 John Sandford
You don’t need context in the first chapter of a thriller. You need motion, and sensory input–those five senses. One very good way to do that is to show the original crime (or other action) already happening, in the first paragraph. In other words, hit the ground running; you can put the context in the second chapter.
Source: Between the Lines: Interview with John Sandford by Brett King (The Big Thrill)
37 Karin Slaughter
If you are a writer, reading gives you a sense or rhythm and how story works. Even if it’s a bad book or a silly book, you’re always learning something. And it’s very easy to spot the writers who aren’t reading, because they basically write the same book again and again. You’ll never grow as a writer—or (dare I say!) as a person—if you do not read.
Source: Karin Slaughter Answers Ten Terrifying Questions (Booktopia)
38 Elmore Leonard
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.
Source: WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle (New York Times)
39 Janet Evanovich
Source: Writer’s Toolbox: Author Q&A (Gotham Writers Workshop)
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