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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.

Interview with Ann Putnam, author of ‘Full Moon at Noontide’

Ann Putnam holds a PhD in literature from the University of Washington. She teaches creative writing and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.  She has published short fiction, personal essays, literary criticism and book reviews in various anthologies including Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, and in journals, including the Hemingway Review, Western American Literature, and the South Dakota Review.  Her latest work is a memoir, Full Moon at Noontide:  A Daughter’s Last Goodbye. Information about her book and how to order it can be found on her website: www.annputnam.com, which includes reviews and radio interviews and bio.  Her book can be ordered at any bookstore, through Amazon, and directly from the distributor at www.tamupress.com or by phone: 1-800-826-8911. She has a Facebook page also, as well as a website through her University: www.ups.edu/faculty/aputnam.html.

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

I’m an academic, and so my writing life for a number of years revolved around scholarly works.  So I’ve published quite a number of such things—articles, reviews, and the like.  During this time I also published short fiction and personal essays.  I’ve written two novels, which I’m in the process of revising, but my memoir, Full Moon at Noontide:  A Daughter’s Last Goodbye is my first book-length publication.

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

Oh my.  This is a wrenching question.  My first book-length work is an autobiographical novel called Incantation.  It was agented for a period of months but my agent didn’t find a publisher and let it sort of languish.  So I took it back, where it lay in that proverbial drawer for a number of years while I wrote another novel.  Now I’ve pulled it out of the drawer, dusted it off, and am half-way through a deep revision.

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?

This is a lovely question to answer.  Unlike my trials with trying to publish literary fiction in this day and age, my memoir found a home very easily.  I submitted it one university press and they almost took it but finally declined, as it resembled too closely another memoir they had recently published.  So on a hunch and a great deal of luck, I called up the editor of Southern Methodist University Press, who had a Medical Humanities Series; they took it, and the rest is history, as they say.

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

Oh, I have had so many rejections of my literary fiction I cannot even count them.  Each time I’d put up my armor, feeling ready for it, but a day or two later it would pierce me to the quick.  I’d feel like never writing another word.  The world would turn gray in every aspect of my life.  This feeling, thankfully, was always short-lived, and I’d pick up the pen to live another day in the writer’s life.  But it has never ever been easy or something I could just let wash over me.

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

I think I talked a bit about this earlier.  The editor of the first press who turned me down recommended Southern Methodist University Press, and after a little research thought they would be a good fit.

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

Ah, doesn’t a writer during the writing of a work, especially one that evolves over a period of years imagine that phone call or letter in the mail or now, e-mail, and that moment of learning, yes yes yes!  We want you and only you!

My experience was more subdued than ever I imagined it to be.  It became just a slowly emerging sense of gratitude that the universe had blessed me in this way and that I was just very very lucky.  The final revision and then the book-in-my-very-own-hands moment came at a very dark time in my life, and so recent that I can’t help speaking of it.  Although my husband knew it would be published he died before the book came out, and so he did not have a chance to read it. That being said, he lived it, and walked those halls with me all the way.  He appears in the book as a sort of heroic presence, or that’s what a number of reviewers have said.  So the publication had its bittersweet aspects.

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

Since my book has a university press publisher, I received lots of back up and great advice but a lot was left up to me.  I began by getting book readings at the large bookstores in my hometown of Seattle, and reviews in the Seattle Times to coincide with the readings.  None of this was easy, to say the least.

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

Not at all.  I’m thrilled with the exquisite job my press did with my book. Everything about it is elegant and first-rate.  The cover is just extraordinarily beautiful.

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

I guess I’ve been mostly working on interviews such as this one for my virtual book tour.  Several of my short stories are going to be published in a collection called Nine by Three in the fall.  How have I grown as a writer?  That’s pretty hard to say looking from the outside in.  Maybe others might have a sense.  I think I am less self-conscious, less intimated by the blank page, more open to writing really badly, and with more confidence in my abilities to see redemption in what initially appears to me to be hopeless.

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?

Oh, I wish I knew the answer to this one!  If only there were a secret I would hold to it fast and go forth fearlessly.  I think the one thing I wish I had been able to do, yet may never be able to do, is to write through rejection and not let it slow me down and make me doubt myself.  That turns joy into fear. And of course a “writer is someone who writes,” not someone who is published. That’s line from a Marge Piercy poem I look to often.

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

Oh, this is an easy one. The answer to this one just comes off my fingertips onto the page.  The book readings.  I discovered how much this book is my work in the world right now and how much it has done already, how much it still needs to do. I discovered the ability to get inside the words I was reading and inhabit them in a kind of otherworldy way.  And then at the end when I took questions from the audience, I found the most amazing ability to open my heart to dark and fearful places and bring them into the light.

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

I’m a teacher and writer and can’t imagine what else I would be good at. I believe I am ill-equipped for much in life. And I’m so fortunate to have discovered a profession that is also a calling.

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

What I have found blessed and also very tricky is balancing the two halves of this world of words I inhabit.  So often the only writing I get done are my written comments on student papers.  Weeks and weeks go by when all my energies are taken up with my students and the works we are reading.  Combining the competing urgencies of the teacher and the writer is a continuing struggle.  But I would give up neither and have found oddly that they often nourish each other in strange and unexpected ways.

Q: How do you see yourself in ten years?

Very tired. Right now I am writing responses for this interview and a dozen others like it.  I have two conference papers to finish for a Hemingway conference in Switzerland where I’ll be, be God-willing, a week from today.  I don’t have a thought beyond that.  However, that being said, I hope to be happy and fully immersed in my writing life.

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

I think I do.  Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird talks about this in her usual charming, disarming and hilarious way:  publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  The joy—the spiritual, artistic, life-altering joy—is in the process, not in the outcome of that process, as that is so often out of the writer’s hands.

Book Spotlight: ‘Full Moon at Noontide’ by Ann Putnam

This is the story of my mother and father and my dashing, bachelor uncle, my father’s identical twin, and how they lived together with their courage and their stumblings, as they made their way into old age and then into death. And it’s the story of the journey from one twin’s death to the other, of what happened along the way, of what it means to lose the other who is also oneself.

My story takes the reader through the journey of the end of life: selling the family home, re-location at a retirement community, doctor’s visits, ER visits, specialists, hospitalizations, ICU, nursing homes, Hospice. It takes the reader through the gauntlet of the health care system with all the attendant comedy and sorrows, joys and terrors of such things. Finally it asks: what consolation is there in growing old, in such loss? What abides beyond the telling of my own tale? Wisdom carried from the end of the journey to readers who are perhaps only beginning theirs. Still, what interest in reading of this inevitable journey taken by such ordinary people? Turned to the light just so, the beauty and laughter of the telling transcend the darkness of the tale.

During the final revisions of this book, my husband was dying of cancer, and he died before I could finish it. What I know so far is this: how pure love becomes when it is distilled through such suffering and loss–a blue flame that flickers and pulses in the deepest heart.

As I finish this book he is gone three months.

These are the words of Ann Putnam, author of the heart-wrenching memoir, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye (Southern Methodist University Press).

Here’s an excerpt:

Writing this now in a rainy light after loss upon loss, a memory comes to me. When I was a teenager, I took voice lessons from Ruth Havstad Almandinger, who gave me exercises and songs I hardly ever practiced. I have wondered why this memory has so suddenly come to me now, and why this, the only song I remember, comes back to me whole and complete:

“Oh! my lover is a fisherman/ and sails on the bright blue river
In his little boat with the crimson sail/ sets he out on the dawn each morning
With his net so strong/ he fishes all the day long
And many are the fish he gathers
Oh! My lover is a fisherman
And he’ll come for me very soon!”

If only I’d known then that my true love would be a fisherman, I might have practiced that song harder and sung it with more feeling, which was what Ruth Havstad Almandinger was always trying to get me to do. If only I’d had a grown up glimpse of my true love when I was sixteen, I would have sung that song so well. If only I’d known he would have cancer and go to the lake for healing the summer after the radiation treatments were done. If only I’d known that I would be his fishing partner that miracle summer of the sockeye come into the lake from the sea. If only I’d known that the cancer would return and that I would do everything I could to save him, knowing all along that he could not be saved, and that my heart would break beyond breaking, then break again. If only I’d seen the sun coming up over the mountains and the sky shift from gray to purple and the pale smudge of light against the mountains turn gold just above the crest. If only I’d seen the sun glinting off those sunslept waters as my love lets down the fishing lines, and off in the distance a salmon leaps—a silver flashing in the sky as if to split the heart of the sun—before it disappears into a soundless splash, in this all too brief and luminous season, to spawn and to die—oh, how I would have sung that song.

Ann teaches creative writing and women’s studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She has published short fiction, personal essays, literary criticism, and book reviews in various anthologies such as Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice and in journals, including the Hemingway Review, Western American Literature, and the South Dakota Review. Her recent release is Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye. You can visit her website at http://www.annputnam.com.

Ann will be on virtual book tour June 1 – July 30 ’10. Visit her official tour page at Pump Up Your Book to find out more about her new memoir, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye.

Amazon or Barnes & Noble are the best way to obtain your copies, although it will be available to order in most local bookstores.

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