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Recipe for Writing a Great Thriller Novel by Joshua Graham

We have a wonderful guest post for you today by Joshua Graham, author of the suspense thriller novel, Beyond Justice (Dawn Treader Press).

Recipe for Writing a Great Thriller Novel

by Joshua Graham

The basic ingredients of fiction apply especially to thrillers and are as follows:

  • Take 1 Character (Protagonist)
  • Place carefully in a setting (you may thrust, splatter, or toss)
  • Add a problem  (Protagonist’s major conflict)
  • Shake, beat, batter well for several iterations (known as the try-fail cycle), more if novel, less if short story.
  • Present  ending either sunny-side-up (victory),  or sunny-side-down (tragedy), or poached (up-down ironic ending)

It’s very much like preparing eggs, if you think about it.  Writing a great thriller requires the basic elements listed in the recipe above.  But here are some more ingredients you’ll need to make a thriller pop.

1.  Go easy on the exposition – Of course every character has a back story.  Every locale has a story.  But in a thriller, you need to move the action.  Think of the pacing of just about any Indiana Jones movie.  There’s not a lot of ruminating, not a lot of contemplation.  Indiana Jones, while a learned person (a professor) is a man of action, not talk.  A man of decision, not deliberation.    If you have crucial backstory, work it into the dialogue or keep the ruminations to a bare minimum—a couple of short paragraphs and back into the present action.

2. Breathe—though thrillers are basically non-stop action, you need to give your character and readers a chance to catch their breath.  A chance to lick their wounds, to laugh or cry.  Do this after several intense chapters, but then let the action spring up, “just when they think it’s safe to go back into the water” to borrow a phrase from JAWS 2.

3. Short-quick chapters—Ever watch a great TV thriller?  Try counting the lines of dialogue before the scenes change, the number of seconds establishing the location.  It’s surprisingly short and fast.  Don’t spend pages and pages beautifully describing the trees, the sky, the weather, the clothes your character is wearing (that’s for literary fiction.)  Just put in enough to set the scene, then let go of the brakes and floor it!

4.  End every chapter with a cliff-hanger –This is key.  What makes a page turner so impossible to put down is that the chapters are short and just about every one of them ends leaving you in suspense.  And because your reader already knows the next chapter will be very short and quick, what does she do?  She turns the page of course.  Keep doing this for the rest of the book and you’ll have a fast-paced novel.  I don’t think fans of literary fiction like this so much, but you’re not writing for them.  (With all due respect, they have great Pulitzer Prize winning authors to read, so don’t feel too sorry for them.)

4. Identify the personal stakes and the global stakes—Indiana Jones must stop the Nazis from obtaining the Holy Grail and unleashing the power of immortality for Adolf Hitler, but he must also save Dear Old Dad (Dr. Henry Jones) and resolve their strained relationship.  Every thriller must be about saving the world, so to speak, but it also must be personal.  Your larger than life protagonist must be just that.  And at the same time, she must have a daughter to save, or an aging parent to care for, even a cat to rescue.

5.  Twists and turns—It’s like preparing a surprise party and the guest of honor is your reader.  You must plot, plot, plot.  You must misdirect him, take him to a door and when he opens it, he finds himself somewhere he never would have imagined.  To do this you must do a lot of reverse engineering.  Figure out early what kind of payoff you want, then work your way back to setting it up.  Don’t cheat and withhold information (clues).  Rather, plant them ever so subtly such that by the time the surprise comes, your reader slaps himself over the head ins delighted surprise and says, “Oh!  Of course!”

6.  Character’s should arc—it’s not always possible with a book series hero to undergo a  life-altering experience in each book, but it still should happen.  Something very important should change in your protagonist’s life.  If you want your reader to feel that they’ve read something significant, then something significant must happen in your protagonist’s life.  If at the end of your book, your protagonist is the same person and nothing has changed, then really, nothing important has happened.  Your reader may be entertained for the duration (which is a good result, don’t get me wrong), but in the end, they will probably forget your book.  At best, what they’ll remember is having fun reading it.

In order for a book to be transformative, something must transform your characters.  Was Joe Detective a man who hated people and only looked out for himself, since that’s what everyone in the world does?  Well, by the end of your book he should become either significantly MORE so, or have adopted a different outlook on life.

How do you do this with a recurring hero in a series?  Well, people have many different things to go through and never stay the same person as life goes on.  We are all works in progress at all times of life.  So your recurring hero can have other changes throughout your subsequent novels.  His basic personality and traits can remain the same, but his values can evolve over the series.  Your readers will feel they’ve grown up with him, done life with him.  He’ll be their close friend, and when the series is done they’ll feel like they’re saying good-bye to a lifelong friend.  And they’ll be begging you to write the next series, or clamoring for a return of the hero.

I realize not every writer will agree with me on all this, and that’s fine.  This is just my recipe for writing a great thriller and it shouldn’t taste like anyone else’s.

Joshua Graham grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where he lived for the better part of 30 years. He holds a Bachelor and Master’s Degree and went on to earn his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.   During his time in Maryland, he taught as a professor at Shepherd College (WV), Western Maryland College, and Columbia Union College (MD).

Today he lives with his beautiful wife and children in San Diego.  Several of Graham’s short fiction works have been published by Pocket Books and Dawn Treader Press under different pen names.

Beyond Justice is now available in Trade Paperback through Amazon.com as well as Barnes and Noble.  It’s available at the Kindle store for $2.99 for a limited time, and can be purchased for other ebook readers at Smashwords, and is now available for the iPad and iPhone at the Apple iBooks store.

A member of the Oregon Writers Network, Graham is a graduate of the Master Classes and professional writing workshops held by Dean W. Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Dean and Kris and the entire OWN, have been a major influence in his journey to become a published writer.  You can visit his website at www.joshua-graham.com, connect with him on facebook at www.facebook.com/j0shuagraham or twitter at www.twitter.com/j0shuagraham.

Interview with Joshua Graham: ‘Keep learning, don’t listen to naysayers, be patient and persistent’

Joshua GrahamJoshua Graham grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where he lived for the better part of 30 years. He holds a Bachelor and Master’s Degree and went on to earn his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. During his time in Maryland, he taught as a professor at Shepherd College (WV), Western Maryland College, and Columbia Union College (MD).

Today he lives with his beautiful wife and children in San Diego. Several of Graham’s short fiction works have been published by Pocket Books and Dawn Treader Press under different pen names.

Beyond Justice is now available in Trade Paperback through Amazon.com as well as Barnes and Noble. It’s available at the Kindle store for $2.99 for a limited time, and can be purchased for other ebook readers at Smashwords, and is now available for the iPad and iPhone at the Apple iBooks store.

A member of the Oregon Writers Network, Graham is a graduate of the Master Classes and professional writing workshops held by Dean W. Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Dean and Kris and the entire OWN, have been a major influence in his journey to become a published writer. You can visit his website at www.joshua-graham.com, connect with him on facebook at www.facebook.com/j0shuagraham or twitter at www.twitter.com/j0shuagraham.

Q: Welcome to Beyond the Books, Joshua.  Can we start out by telling us whether you are published for the first time or are you multi-published?

Although Beyond Justice is my first published novel, my short fiction works have been published in several anthologies by Pocket Books.

Q: What was the name of your very first book regardless of whether it was published or not and, if not published, why?

Interesting you should ask.  Beyond Justice is actually the third novel I have written.  But the name of the first novel I ever wrote is Babel Reascending. I may one day get over my bashfulness about it and get it published.  But I’m a different writer today than I was when I wrote it.

Q: For your first published book, how many rejections did you go through before you either found a mainstream publisher, self-published it, or paid a vanity press to publish it?

Rejections are part and parcel for a writer’s career.  Just ask Dean Koontz who received about 70 rejections before selling his first novel.  I probably had about 20 or more, but they were mostly to agents.

Q: How did the rejections make you feel and what did you do to overcome the blows?

I learned early on that rejections were just part of the process.  I was also taught to believe in my book, and my craft.  Rejections don’t bother me, especially because just about every editor who has sent me one has been incredibly professional and courteous.  I understand that the rejection is not meant to be taken personally, and I understand what an incredible number of manuscripts these good people (editors and publishers) have to go through.  They also have to find the right book for their line, for that current season, one that the entire company will be willing to put money behind.  Sometimes it takes the lining up of the stars, so to speak, to find the right fit at the right time.

I wonder how the editor who rejected John Grisham’s The Firm must feel everyday right now.  To be fair, it’s not easy knowing which book will become the next runaway best seller.  Editors have to reject a lot of great material and they don’t always get it right.  (Of course, there is a lot of slush out there as well, but we’re limiting this discussion to long term, professional writing.)  We writers aren’t the only ones putting ourselves at risk when we send our manuscripts out.

I’d hate to be the poor guy who rejected Dean Koontz’s first novel before he sold it.

What do I feel about rejections? Like Vito Corleone always said, “It’s nothing personal, just business.”  You just stay professional, keep it in the mail, and spend your time not fretting about this or that rejection letter, but writing your next great book.

Q: When your first book was published, who published it and why did you choose them?

Dawn Treader Press is an independent publisher whose vision aligns very well with mine.  They are looking to publish books that break through traditional genre boundaries, books that not only entertain but challenge and enlighten their readers.

Q: How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?

When I first held the galley for Beyond Justice in my hands, my wife was out of the country.  I was so excited, but the moment felt incomplete without her.  So I took a picture of it and sent it to her via SMS.  The truth is, I haven’t really done anything yet because I’m so busy writing more novels and short stories and haven’t decided the best way to celebrate.  One thing for sure, it will involve friends and loved ones.  They’ve been so supportive of me throughout the process.  But seriously?  I’m already excited about the next four or five novels.

Q: What was the first thing you did as for as promotion when you were published for the first time?

Facebook, of course.  But it wasn’t as official as the press release.

Q: If you had to do it over again, would you have chosen another route to be published?

It’s difficult to look back and know if you should have or would have done something differently.  I feel blessed where I am and believe that things will only get better from now on.  I am open to all possibilities in the future.

Q: Have you been published since then and how have you grown as an author?

I will have several short fiction works and collections released soon, perhaps by the time this interview is published.  I would like to continue growing as an author and a human being for as long as the good Lord gives me breath.  If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

Q: Looking back since the early days when you were trying to get published, what do you think you could have done differently to speed things up?  What kind of mistakes could you have avoided?

I would have spent less time worrying about the words of naysayers (thankfully, there were few in my life) who are always skeptical about any dream someone may have.

Q: What has been the biggest accomplishment you have achieved since becoming published?

It hasn’t been that long since.  I would say the biggest accomplishment for me is becoming a better listener to my wife and children.  I’m not completely there yet, but I think it’s helped a lot.

Q: If you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?

An international concert cellist, like Mstislav Rostropovich…okay, how about Yo-Yo Ma?  J

Q: Would you give up being an author for that profession or have you combined the best of both worlds?

I don’t think I’d ever give up being an author any more than I’d give up my voice.  Perhaps one day, when I’m a bestselling writer on the NY Times list, I’ll go back the stage and give public concerts again.

Q: How do you see yourself in ten years?

Healthy, active, at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, my family doing fantastically well in every area, being able to bless people (friends, loved-ones and strangers alike) with whatever resources I’ve been blessed with.  I’d love to do like my mentors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathyrn Rusch, and share my knowledge and experience with other aspiring writers.

Q: Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?

Keep learning, don’t listen to naysayers, be patient and persistent.  Remember that you are the worst judge of your own work, so finish what you start writing and mail it out.  Don’t sit around waiting for rejection letters or fretting if/when they come in, start writing the next book or story, and repeat the process.  The more material you have out in the mail (or email) the less you will fret when you get a rejection letter.  And the more inventory you develop, the more income streams you’ll have when you hit it big and suddenly everyone want to publish everything you’ve ever written.

‘Beyond Justice’ Joshua Graham on virtual book tour September & October ’10

Joshua GrahamJoin Joshua Graham, author of the suspense thriller, Beyond Justice (Dawn Treader Press), as he virtually tours the blogosphere September 7 – October 29 ‘10 on his first virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!

Joshua Graham grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where he lived for the better part of 30 years. He holds a Bachelor and Master’s Degree and went on to earn his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. During his time in Maryland, he taught as a professor at Shepherd College (WV), Western Maryland College, and Columbia Union College (MD).

Today he lives with his beautiful wife and children in San Diego. Several of Graham’s short fiction works have been published by Pocket Books and Dawn Treader Press under different pen names.

Beyond Justice is now available in Trade Paperback through Amazon.com as well as Barnes and Noble. It’s available at the Kindle store for $2.99 for a limited time, and can be purchased for other ebook readers at Smashwords, and is now available for the iPad and iPhone at the Apple iBooks store.

A member of the Oregon Writers Network, Graham is a graduate of the Master Classes and professional writing workshops held by Dean W. Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Dean and Kris and the entire OWN, have been a major influence in his journey to become a published writer. You can visit his website at www.joshua-graham.com, connect with him on facebook at www.facebook.com/j0shuagraham or twitter at www.twitter.com/j0shuagraham.

Publishers Weekly calls Beyond Justice “…A riveting legal thriller…. breaking new ground with a vengeance… demonically entertaining and surprisingly inspiring.”

To find out where he’ll be appearing on virtual tour, visit his official tour page at Pump Up Your Book here. Pump Up Your Book is an innovative public relations agency specializing in virtual book tours and online book promotion. Visit their website at www.pumpupyourbook.com.

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