Thursday, December 29, 2011

Write What You Know: A Career U.S. Diplomat


Robbie Cutler Diplomatic Mysteries

By William S. Shepard

I was a career diplomat in the American Foreign Service. I served at our U.S. embassies in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest and Athens, and then retired as Consul General in Bordeaux, France. Since the usual advice given to beginning writers was “write about what you know,” I wrote about the Embassy world. During one of my five Washington tours, as Duty Officer for the Secretary of State, I found myself staying late one evening at the office. While I perused files and diplomatic cables, I realized I had access to a variety of interesting information and sources. That was when the idea came to me that after I retired, I would write mystery stories set in American Embassies overseas.

It was a new genre at the time, and to my knowledge I was the only writer writing what I call “diplomatic mysteries.” I began the series with my protagonist, Robbie Cutler, a thirty- something career diplomat. He served where I had served, and if necessary, I went back overseas to validate my story and for research purposes.

When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest it was during the communist years, when the Hungarian Revolution was officially a nonevent, so it was impossible to do solid research. After the Berlin Wall came down, and with the assistance of both the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the American Embassy in Budapest, I returned, did research for the book, and even lectured at the official 1956 Historical Institute. Now that would be impossible, for the Institute no longer exists. The 1956 Historical Institute was defunded, some say because its files may have contained embarrassing information about presently powerful people! History tends to wobble around still, like that Budapest park filled with old statues of the Stalinist era!

My series caught on. The President of the American Foreign Service endorsed my series with a cover blurb, “London has Sherlock Holmes, San Francisco has Sam Spade, and now Washington has its first diplomatic sleuth, Robbie Cutler. Learn about embassy life from the inside, as you enjoy Bill Shepard’s latest diplomatic mystery.”

How did I build my novel series using my work experience as a diplomat?


The themes in the series came from my own diplomatic experience. The first novel, VINTAGE MURDER, was set in Bordeaux, where Robbie Cutler was the American Consul. In MURDER ON THE DANUBE, the sequel, Robbie had reassigned as Political Officer to the American Embassy in Budapest.


The best practical writing advice I ever received was to know my main character well. I would then, gradually, find the other characters emerged from the qualities that my main character lacked. Uncle Seth, Robbie’s great uncle was a nationally prominent man, once TIME Magazine’s Man Of The Year, who also had access to Washington intelligence circles. I thought of Uncle Seth because I wanted Robbie to have access to national security information that a diplomat of his rank and experience would otherwise not have.


Bad guys? I’ve learned that they are all sorts of villains, but none are one dimensional. The ETA gunman in the first novel was motivated by a police killing of a member of his family. The traitor in the second novel was also motivated by the killing of a member of his family. It was fun to speculate about “the Napoleon of Crime,” but most people prefer a villain with reasonable and understandable motivations, something they are accustomed to.

I look forward to reader comments, as together we explore the fascinating craft of writing thrillers with international settings.


William S. Shepard is the author of the Robber Cutler diplomat mystery series: VINTAGE MURDER, MURDER ON THE DANUBE, MURDER IN DORDOGNE, and THE SLADIN AFFAIR. Career diplomat William S. Shepard served as the Consul or Political Officer at U.S. Embassies in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest and Athens. Shepard’s diplomatic career was capped by service as Consul General at the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, France. He and his wife now live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.Visit him on Facebook at or on his website

Thursday, December 22, 2011

ITW 2011 Debut Authors Pinned

Using Pinterest to both Promote and Write Your Next Novel


Before the year comes to a close I wanted to share a great visual tool I use to write my novels, Pinterest. Pinterest is a digital white board that lets you organize and share with your friends online. As an author you can use it to:

  • organize chapter settings
  • build a visual character sketch
  • catalog your book’s year in pictures
  • catalog book bloggers who love your books
  • the sky’s the limit (I also use it for my Christmas Cookie project)


Pinterest can also help you connect with your fans. I already have fans anticipating my next novel, Someone Bad and Something Blue (July 2012.)


They can subscribe to the pin board to get a glimpse of what the book could be about.

They can also see me put the third book in the series together by subscribing to all my pins.


I thought it would be fun for the Holiday Season to use Pinterest here at The Thrill Begins. The picture above is the Class of 2011 board. (We already have three followers.) Are we a not fabulous bunch?! As I put the board together I was in awe of the amazing talent we have and I wondered at the possibilities for what we could do to leverage our readership if we continued to be accountable to each other, share author goodies that will help us grow, and be a support system for each other. If we have learned nothing this year, we’ve learned that being a published author can be a lonely road if we let it. I hope you continue to participate and participate even more. This blog, The Thrill Begins, is created to help you on your writing journey. If you would like to contribute to the The Thrill Begins 2012, please contact me at

Again Happy Holidays!

And for the first two commenters, I will give you an invitation to join Pinterest with me!

deestewartMiranda Parker is the author of A Good Excuse to Be Bad (Kensington), the first in the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter Series. Parker has been featured at NBCC and The Decatur Book Festival, the Atlanta Press Club’s Holiday Author Party, and featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, RT Book Reviews Magazine, and Publishers Weekly. She is also the Social Media/Marketing Person for the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Program and a contributing editor to The Big Thrill Magazine. Her sequel, Someone Bad & Something Blue, will be released July 2012. Visit her at

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Suspense Versus Surprise


by Chris Eboch/Kris Bock


A few years ago I had the chance to ghost write a novel about a certain famous girl sleuth. Not only was that fun, but I learned something valuable from the editor. She asked me to look again at my chapter endings, and said,

“I would like to see more of a slow build-up toward the intense action. In horror movies, it’s always the ominous music and the main character slowly opening the closet door that scares us the most, not the moment right after she opens the door.”

She’s noting the difference between suspense and surprise. When something happens suddenly and unexpectedly, that’s a surprise. If you are going about your business, perfectly happy, when a car slams into yours, or something hits you in the back of the head, or a phone call reveals bad news, that’s a surprise. But up until that moment, there was no suspense.

This is an important difference to remember when writing, especially when writing thrillers. We know the importance of surprise twists, and we may be tempted to keep secrets and let them out with a bang. But true suspense comes from suspecting that something will happen and worrying about it or anticipating it.

Something Is Coming...

To build up truly dramatic moments, give the reader clues that something bad — or excitingly good — is going to happen. Here’s an early version of a chapter ending from Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs, my novel for ages 8 to 12 (written as Chris Eboch). The narrator, Jon, isn’t sure he believes his little sister Tania when she says she can see ghosts, but goes with her to look for one as their stepfather films his ghost hunter TV show.

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

Tania turned to me. The look in her eyes made my stomach flip.

The moment isn’t bad for a cliffhanger chapter ending, but it could use some more buildup, more time for Jon to suspect something’s wrong. Here’s how the chapter ended in the published book:

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

She didn’t back up. She swayed.

I took a quick step forward and put my arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. I looked down into her face. I’d never seen anyone so white. White as death. Or white as a ghost.

“Tania,” I hissed. I gave her a shake. She took a quick breath and dragged her eyes away from the staircase and to my face. The look in them made my stomach flip.

The revised version is longer. To get the most out of dramatic moments, you actually slow the pace by using more detail. It’s ironic, but you want to write slow moments quickly, maybe summing up a boring afternoon in a sentence or two, while writing a fast moment slowly, drawing out every detail.

Powerful ParagraphingWhispers in the DARK

You can also affect the pace of your story by your sentence and paragraph lengths. Description or introspection can usually be put in longer paragraphs, slowing the pace and lulling the reader into a false sense of security. When you come to a big action scene, though, try breaking it up into short paragraphs.

Short paragraphs actually make the story read faster, because the eye moves more quickly down the page. You can also emphasize an important sentence by starting a new paragraph or even putting that sentence into a paragraph by itself. For example, consider the following two versions of a chapter ending, adapted from my new romantic suspense novel, Whispers in the Dark (written under the name Kris Bock). The heroine, Kylie, is being chased by villains. It’s dark, and there’s a cliff nearby.

Example 1:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back. Something sharp caught me across the shin, causing me to yelp and stumble forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me. Unfortunately, the foot found no place to land, so I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind. And then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

Example 2:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back.

Something sharp caught me across the shin. I yelped and stumbled forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me.

The foot found no place to land. I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind.

And then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

These use nearly the same words. The only differences are that in the second version I broke up some long sentences into short ones, and I use four paragraphs instead of one. I think the second version captures more of the breathless panic that the narrator would be feeling. Think about that phrase “my life flashed before my eyes.” Life really does seem to slow down in the most high impact moments. Capture that on paper, and your readers will race through the scene breathlessly, wanting to find out what happens.

Learn More

Eboch credit Sonya Sones (1)Of course, not every chapter can end with dramatic physical action. My essay “Hanging by the Fingernails: Cliffhangers” in Advanced Plotting (written as Chris Eboch) also discusses how to use cliffhangers in quieter moments. I covered that on my blog as well – along with 10 other posts on cliffhangers! You can tell I love the subject. See my cliffhanger blog posts here.

Learn more about Chris and read excerpts of her work at (for children’s books written under the name Chris Eboch) or (for adult romantic suspense written under the name Kris Bock) or see her Amazon page. Kris Bock’s first romantic suspense novel, Rattled, features treasure hunting adventures in New Mexico. In Whispers in the Dark, coming out this month, a young archaeologist seeking peace after an assault stumbles into danger as mysteries unfold among ancient Southwest ruins. Can she overcome the fears from her past, learn to fight back, and open herself to a new romance?

Chris Eboch’s book Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. Learn how to get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve your pacing, and more. Advanced Plotting is available on Amazon in paperback for $9.99, or as an e-book for $4.99 on Amazon or Smashwords. You can also read excerpts from Advanced Plotting and get other writing craft advice on her blog.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Which Comes First—The Casting or The Character?


By P.I. Barrington

Casting Photo of Snow White and The Huntsman (2012)

I'm a big proponent of "casting" characters. Hell, I’m probably the concept's head cheerleader! You most likely know by now that the practice of "casting" your characters with photos of actors/athletes/models and, on occasion, just regular people you'd love to see them play on the screen is widely used by authors for cover art and character inspiration. But there's a whole other dimension to just picking a headshot of a handsome, dreamy actor who you think looks like the character in your head and in your plot.

It reminds me of the ancient conundrum of which came first the chicken or the egg but with an authorly twist (yeah, I just made that adverb up) and deciding which does depends on just how you create that character. That takes looking at and understanding your own creative process.

What comes first in your character creation: The name? The personality quirks? The character's job? Or is it the physical description? All of these items figure into your character's birth and many times the order in which they arrive can surprise you—in a good way.

Casting characters first:

The development of characters can come from the casting pictures and great detail can express itself as well. If you picture your character as blonde, blue-eyed and short, those three features present you with several possibilities at once. Is the character from a certain heritage or location in his or her world, say Scandinavian or British which then begs the questions of their family history, structure and views of society and their places in it. Is that character out of his/her element? How do they react to their current situation—do they adapt well or struggle throughout the story? How do they view themselves if they're short or petite—positive or negative—and what develops in their personality as the result of that view? Are they resentful or fearful of people taller than themselves? Do they view themselves as attractively petite like Blanche Devereaux of Golden Girls? How do they style their hair? Do they wear it with no fuss or do they make a great work of styling it? Something as simple as the way they wear their hair can expose a particular quirk in their personality—no nonsense or excessive extravagant—or keep something they're hiding secret.

The casting photo you choose can offer abilities, career choices, and everything from likes and dislikes to what sports or hobbies they enjoy depending on their physical characteristics such as body type. If you find a photo of a tall, dark woman who appears (in your casting photo of course) athletic, her abilities could include strength, agility and sports ability; or a willowy supermodel type. The same is true for men and young characters or child characters. Matching up characters with their jobs according to physical characteristics can be predictable or unpredictable too. You might have a tall willowy brunette with waist length hair who excels in computer science and avoids exercise altogether or your muscular, athletic looked red-haired male might be a banker rather than a soccer player. Sometimes mixing things up can be interesting for both you and your reader—it keeps you on your toes as a writer trying to make that character either consistent or wildly impulsive and keeps your reader guessing as to what choice the character will make in a pinch.

Emotions can be represented in casting photos too and can be the most important part of casting since it directly relates to character. I believe I need to illustrate this section with a little anecdote that happened to me when I working on my first crime thriller, Crucifying Angel. When the time came for my input sheet to assist my publisher's cover artist, I needed to find a picture of the male romantic rival of the hero. I already knew what Nick Kincaid looked like I just needed to find someone to show my cover artist. After a long search I located a headshot that I thought was perfect. I immediately sent it to her. After the cover was finished and the book out, I thought I might search for more photos of "Nick" since he was a recurring character in the Future Imperfect trilogy. I cannot express the absolute shock of finding all the other photos of the actor—they were of a grey-haired older man in at least his late sixties! I talked to my Editor and informed her of this situation. She laughed and said, "Sometimes it's the lighting, mood, and angle that makes all the difference!" And after the trilogy was finished, I accidentally found another actor who personified Nick and really was younger!

I digress. As in the anecdote, you can pin the personality of your character from one of those moody shots. A headshot usually works best for this, especially if you can find the "lighting mood and angle" that speaks to you as your character. A child's headshot that appears innocent, sweet and happy or one that looks angry (yes there are some—I have one as an avatar lol!) or spoiled can act as catalyst to create an unusual child character with a deep or shallow personality. The same goes for teenage or young adult casting photos. Your teenager can look like either a mathematical genius nerd or exuberant cheerleader but flip the coin and he/she can be full of angst, resentment, attitude, insecurity or hormones.

Most fun of all can be casting your hero/heroine! Here's where you get to dive into your favorite characteristics. You can let fly with the romance, strength, softness, anything you love giving your characters (or they tell you they like) and if you like pretty men and women, hit the actors' websites! (Remember this is only for your fantasy personal casting, you do not have any rights to use the casting shots for anything else!) I've found tall, dark, moody and powerful (& don't forget the pretty) heroines and I've found casting shots of women of every type from tall, athletic to petite and barely able to hold a weapon steady. Another example of casting first that worked perfectly is the main heroine of CA, Payce Halligan—I happened to be easing boredom by checking out avatar sites and there was a medium close-up shot of a blonde woman shooting target practice. At that time I did not know what I could possibly use her for but when I started the novel, she gave me the basis for Payce, a Las Vegas Police Department Homicide Detective.

And last, casting first can give you the most important part of your character: their conflicts! Payce Halligan had major guilt demons, the kind you wouldn't expect her to possess, and they offset the tough, strong police woman normally expected, giving her a depth that could not be imagined. This came from that one casting photo I found that I shelved until I needed it. This type of casting can work on any character in your novel, major to minor, and especially your villain! He/she can look like a mousy, uninteresting bore harboring a raging demon inside or be as beautiful as an angel but be a pretty version of The Mad Hatter!

Casting characters is one of my favorite parts of writing and publishing. It can trigger unbelievable creativity as well as help dictate your plot in the direction it should go to keep it as great as you know it is; it can also assist your writing technique in character development! I even gave it a name: my Virtual Casting Couch! Let the auditions begin!

PIBarrington photoAfter a decade long detour through the entertainment industry, P.I. Barrington has returned to her roots as a novelist writing in several genre' including futuristic crime thrillers, paranormal crime thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, and the occasional humor shorts. Among her past careers is radio air talent and journalist. Barrington lives in Los Angeles California (where else?) in a rural area where she watches semi-wild horses grazing behind her house! She has just released her dark, science fiction adventure, Isadora DayStar, available from Smashwords. P.I. Barrington can be contacted via emails: or and has a blog and website: Blog: and official website:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bookstore Stops 101: Tips for Your Author Event


by Mark Stevens

Between the Facebook “like” buttons, the tweet avalanche, and the endless (here’s another one) blog posts, you sometimes have to wonder whether you are connecting your book with the right audience. Yes, I plunge from the high-dive into social media. I do my best. I try to balance self-promotion with genuine participation. Out here in the virtual village, I’ve met tons of cool readers and sold lots of books.

But when it comes to marketing, there’s one old-school tactic that is my bedrock.

Bookstores. Booksellers. Book people.

I visited 42 stores in 2007 when Antler Dust came out and I’m back on the trail in late 2011 with the sequel, Buried by the Roan. Success rates vary. But here’s how I think about it. You’re a writer. Wouldn’t you want your own built-in agents working for you every day? People who talk to readers all day long?

It’s not about just the event and that particular bookstore stop. It’s about developing a relationship with the store owner (or event manager) and readers, too. (And don’t forget: each event gives you a solid reason to tweet and post.)

A few tips:

  1. Query far ahead. Think months. Work with their schedule. Ask if they do events, but be willing to stand around for a few hours with your titles and your nifty cool promotional material. This is true for the chain stores, too. Each Barnes & Noble outlet has its own flair, its own interest in doing “events.”
  2. Treat each event like it was the only one you were ever going to do. Ask the bookstore owner for reporter and editor names in the community. Send advance copy books to the local media (no matter how small). The long lead time pays off here, too. Call the reporter or editor a couple weeks before the event, remind them you are on the way.
  3. Ask the bookstore if you can send a few flyers. Make the flyers. Send them. Ask the bookstore if the local library might post a flyer if you send one or two. Make them, send them.
  4. Find online community calendars (almost every town has one or two). Upload the details.
  5. Find writers who live in the town—or nearby. (Again, the bookstore owner will know.) See if you can make a connection and ask for that writer’s help in reaching friends and fans. Pull up their Twitter account and follow some of their followers. Once a connection is established, send a direct message with the details and something personal.
  6. Post the signing event on your Facebook page (two weeks out, one week out, “day of” reminder) and tweet it to smithereens. Search your Facebook friends for those who live in the area, create an FB event page, invite them. Find the bookstore’s Twitter handle and follow a bunch of their followers (readers, not the carpet cleaning companies) and then send a direct message once they follow you back. (They will.)
  7. Day of event: Ask for a spot near the front of the store. Stand; don’t sit. Be prepared to answer questions about where the bathroom is located. Engage every reader who comes within range. “Any mystery fans here today?” “Looking for something in particular?” “I’m a writer from XYZ town, let me know if you’ve got a minute and I can tell you about my new title.”
  8. Come prepared. Bring a bottle of water, breath mints (ahem). Bring copies of reviews, bookmarks, business cards. An 11&17 poster on foam core with your cover. Best of all, bring your quick speech. What is your story about in one sentence? Nail it. Rehearse it. Make it genuine. Not a sales pitch. Ask readers what they like. Engage them. Some will think, “I may not like mysteries but I have a friend…”
  9. Send a ‘thank you’ to the store after it’s over and post public ‘thanks’ on FB and Twitter and wherever else your social media heart desires.
  10. Not sure yet? Go to book signings and readings by other writers. Take notes. Keep the things you like, dump the elements you don’t.

Now, if you liked this column, back to the virtual world. Please visit my Facebook page and and you could even ‘like’ my protagonist, Colorado hunting guide Allison Coil. Hey, and thanks. Nice “meeting” you. Follow me and I'll see you in cyberspace: @writerstevens


The son of two librarians, Mark Stevens was raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He worked as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, covering a variety of events and issues from the economy, commercial fishing, the environment, politics, then at The Rocky Mountain News, and for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. He has produced field documentaries across the United States and Latin America. He is the author of the novels ANTLER DUST and BURIED BY THE ROAN and now works in public relations.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

10 Last Minute Holiday Book Marketing Tips


We have a few more weeks before Christmas, Kwanzaa, Watch Night and New Year's. Bookstores have geared up for holiday shoppers and blacked-out in-store events for marquis authors, so there are fewer available spots for in-store events for authors to grab at the last minute. Public libraries have geared up for holiday events, so again, the newer authors will have trouble finding readings to participate in. So what do you do? Hold off selling your books until 2012? Or are there ways for you to take advantage of Holiday Cheer? I say take advantage. Here are 10 ways to promote your writing through the holidays.

1. Host a free children’s book drive at your local library.

It’s not too late to book a meeting room or space at your local library or smaller bookstore for a free children’s book drive. If you plan it now, you have time to get a local reporter and local blogger to the event. Invite the public to drop off new books at the library to give away or donate to the library’s children’s section. On your event day have holiday punch and cookies and invite the public to pick up a free children’s book.

2. Give your book to local coffeehouses to include in holiday gift baskets.

Four years ago I met with a popular local coffee house in my town by request of the owner. He loved authors and great books. We created gift baskets with my client’s books inside. We also introduced a new Winter Reading Series.

3. Host an Under the Dryer Book Signing at a Beauty Salon.

Have you ever been in a beauty salon? The long wait, the old reading material. What if someone was selling a book to read while sitting under the dryer? Bingo!! A client of mine sold out one weekend doing this event. You can also create holiday spa gift baskets that include your book for the salon event.

4. Write a Christmas story and have it published in your local community paper or regional magazine.

I wrote a story for Precious Times Magazine a few years back titled “Kissmas Time.” From that one story, I received many invitations to write articles for other magazines. I have a mailing list of people interested in my book (when it comes out). And I have had speaking engagement requests also as a result of that story.

5. Sponsor your local Girl Scout or Boy Scout Christmas Parade Float.

I just participated in my town’s annual Christmas parade. Loads of fun. I saw many familiar faces and made a friend of the mayor. Yippee. Being out and about in the community is a great way to build your author name. Sponsoring a float, making a banner, providing costumes, or just chaperoning kids in the parade will help make you a presence. People will become familiar with you. If you are an author, have kids pass out bookmarks with candy attached to them, or take your little Christmas story, package it up, and give it out to those on the parade route.

6. Read Christmas Stories at your local elementary school media center.

If you write for a young adult market, or even a soccer mom market, then get yourself to your local school and read your cool book to kids. Host a Santa letter party.

7. Host an Online Book Giveaway--but not of your book. Instead give away:

Promote the giveaway and the winner by sending a press release to the winner’s local paper.Put the book in a gift basket from your local coffeehouse. Hey, it works for the Avon lady.

8. Host a Holiday Book Party at a local restaurant

Publisher and author Dwan Abrams hosted a party this weekend in downtown Atlanta to celebrate her birthday, the holidays, and the release of her fourth novel Married Strangers. The event was free to attend. It is also a book drive for a Women’s Prison Literacy Project. She’s got local celebrities, book reviewers, and bookstore managers popping through. The event has been promoted on local gospel radio stations, online mags, local papers, and to anyone within two paces of her.You do know that now is the time to throw a party?

9. Build a tip sheet

Center the sheet around your book’s theme and the holidays, then submit the tip list as filler for major local magazines and online magazines your readers read.

10. Be a front door vendor at your local bookstore.

Ask your local bookstore if you can set up a table on the weekend to sell your books. Ask for two tables. One to sell your book and another to gift wrap books as a free service to the bookstore. All bookstore chains allow authors to do this. (However, some bookstores will only talk to publicists or publishers.)

Bonus: contact your bookstore every week to see if any big authors had last minute cancellations for their Holiday In Store Events. But be prepared to get books to the store on short notice.

If you put all this together, you will see that the lesson here is to become a part of your community. The holidays are the best and most opportune times to do this. There’s just something about holiday cheer. And it only comes once a year--take advantage of it.

What other Guerilla Marketing Holiday Tips can you share?

And what are you most thankful for as a writer this year?

deestewartMiranda Parker is the author of A Good Excuse to Be Bad (Kensington), the first in the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter Series. Parker has been featured at NBCC and The Decatur Book Festival, and featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, RT Book Reviews, and Publishers Weekly. She is also the Social Media/Marketing Person for the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Program and a contributing editor to The Big Thrill. A sequel, Someone Bad & Something Blue, will be released in July 2012. Visit her at

photo credit: macinate

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thriller subgenres: is it SciFi, or SciThri?


Thriller subgenres: is it SciFi, or SciThri?

By Amy Rogers

When authors pitch a novel to agents or editors, they’re expected to cite which category or genre applies to their work. “Where would this book be shelved at Barnes & Noble?” is the question.

Some thriller writers struggle to neatly package their novel in a single category. Mystery versus thriller is a distinction blurred in some books. Thrillers may have strong horror elements, or plenty of romance, begging to be shelved with those genres.

For me, the problematic genre distinction is science thriller (SciThri) versus science fiction (SciFi). I write thrillers. My books meet the expected conventions of the genre in terms of page-turning tension, action, high stakes, and a ticking-clock climax. Yet some reviewers have referred to my debut novel Petroplague as “science fiction.”

Why? Well, I wrote a work of fiction that has a lot of science in it.

Unlike legal thrillers, medical thrillers, espionage thrillers, historical thrillers, and so on, science-themed thrillers are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of mislabeling. There is no shelf at B&N marked “Legal Fiction” or “Spy Fiction,” but there is that big section of “Science Fiction”. How tempting it is to take a novel with a science-driven plot and just toss it in the fiction category that has “science” in the title.

Does it matter if a science-themed thriller gets shelved as SciFi? I think it does. A reader picking up a SciFi novel will have different expectations than a reader picking up a thriller with a scientist as protagonist. SciThri may appeal to SciFi fans, but the science thriller audience is different and potentially bigger—consider all the Michael Crichton fans in the world!

So what’s the difference between SciFi and SciThri? I’ll admit it’s not always clear-cut. But based on the scores of reviews I’ve done for, here are the general characteristics I believe define these two categories of stories.

Science thrillers:

  • Usually fiction but can also be nonfiction (e.g. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston)
  • Set in the real world or something recognizably similar to it
  • Plot occurs in the present time
  • Science is crucial to the plot and typically a scientist is a main character
  • Technology alone does not make a science thriller (e.g. military technothrillers such as Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October don’t qualify)
  • Story must be plot-driven, page-turning, with some (or a lot of) action
  • The science should be largely grounded in scientific reality. If a scientific plot element is technically impossible, it must be plausible to an average reader.

Science fiction:

  • Always fiction
  • May be set in any world, real or imagined, earth-bound or outer-space
  • Plot events may occur at any time (past, present, future, or an indeterminate “long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). History can be rewritten at will.
  • Science or technology may be important to the plot, or it may be little more than mood-setting wallpaper in the background of the story
  • SciFi can be plot-driven and action-packed, or it can be quite literary
  • Scientific plot elements don’t have to be realistic. Time travel, warp speed, and mind-reading are all okay.

Many ITW members (Paul McEuen, James Rollins, and Karen Dionne, to name a few) write books that qualify as science thrillers. I wonder if they have seen their books categorized as SciFi? Granted, some of them—such as Rollins—stretch the science in their stories beyond plausibility into the SciFi realm. Others, such as Paul McEuen in his brilliantly technical debut Spiral, keep their stories largely rooted in scientific reality or near-possibility.

Ultimately, I think the distinction between SciThri and SciFi is believability. In science fiction, the reader allows the author to manufacture entire universes and civilizations from scratch; as long as the author keeps internally-consistent rules, anything goes. By contrast, in a science thriller the reader should be plagued by the feeling that this could really happen. This feeling lurks in the heart of the tension of most great thrillers, science or otherwise.

Do you know a thriller that in your opinion has been wrongly categorized by some readers or industry professionals?

More questions: How do you categorize your novels? Have you experienced mislabeling because you write hybrid thrillers?


Dr. Amy Rogers writes thrilling science-themed novels that pose frightening “what if?” questions. Compelling characters and fictionalized science—not science fiction—make her books page-turners that seamlessly blend reality with imagination. She is a member of International Thriller Writers Debut Class (2011-2012). In her novel Petroplague, oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city. Learn more at and You can also follow Amy on twitter (@ScienceThriller) and on her Facebook fan page.

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More about ITW Debut Author’s Program":am

The International Thriller Writers membership includes some of the world’s best-selling authors: David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, Lee Child, Sandra Brown, Clive Cussler, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, James Patterson and many, many more.

The ITW Debut Author Program, under the aegis of the International Thriller Writers main organization, seeks to support our first-book members through the publication process by providing a friendly, interactive community for the purposes of networking, mentoring, promotion, and camaraderie.

Membership in the Debut Authors program is for Active-status ITW members only. Before you can apply to the Debut Authors program, you must first apply for ITW membership. More information about ITW membership here

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Thursday, November 10, 2011



"Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph." Roger Ebert

Welcome to Thriller Thursday!

This week we have a treat for you. Jodie Renner shares advice that is paramount to writing a great thriller. The Villain. As the Roger Ebert quote states above, having a worthy antagonist does more than just give your hero someone to defeat. The villain gives your reader a reason to join your hero’s journey, to connect emotionally with the hero, and to understand what’s at stake, if the hero does not succeed.

The villain deserves a great deal of attention from the writer. Wouldn’t you agree? Renner shares terrific villain character development tips and also opens up this week’s discussion. How evil should a modern villain be?

Thank you for this great post, Jodie.



by Jodie Renner

You’ve outlined a plot and created an appealing, complex protagonist for your thriller or other crime/action fiction — great start! But what about your antagonist? According to James N. Frey, “the villain is your best friend, because the villain creates the plot behind the plot — the plot that has to be foiled by the hero.”

The hero or heroine of your suspense novel needs a worthy opponent who is standing in his/her way and threatening other innocent people. As James Scott Bell says, “Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on?”

And thrillers and other crime fiction need a downright nasty bad guy — but not a “mwoo-ha-ha” caricature or stereotype. If your villain is just a wicked cardboard caricature of what he could be, your readers will quickly lose interest. As Hallie Ephron says, “Characters who are simply monstrously evil can come off as old-fashioned clich├ęs.”

To create a believable, complex, chilling villain, make him clever and determined, but also someone who feels justified in his actions. Ask yourself what the bad guy wants, how he thinks the protagonist is standing in his way, and how he explains his own motivations to himself.

How does your villain rationalize his actions? He may feel that he is justified because of early childhood abuse or neglect, a grudge against society, a goal thwarted by the protagonist, a desire for revenge against a perceived wrong, or a need for power or status — or money to fund his escape. Whatever his reasons, have them clear in your own mind, and at least hint at them in your novel. Like the protagonist, the antagonist needs motivations for his actions.

To give yourself the tools to create a realistic, believable antagonist, try writing a mini-biography of your villain: his upbringing and family life, early influences, and harrowing experiences or criminal activities so far. As Hallie Ephron advises us, “Think about what happened to make that villain the way he is. Was he born bad, or did he sour as a result of some traumatic event? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If he can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know what drives him to do what he does.” Creating a backstory for your antagonist will help you develop a multidimensional, convincing bad guy.

Many writing gurus advise us to even make the antagonist a bit sympathetic. James Scott Bell says, “The great temptation in creating bad guys is to make them evil through and through. You might think this will make your audience root harder for your hero. More likely, you’re just going to give your book a melodramatic feel. To avoid this, get to know all sides of your bad guy, including the positives.”

Bell suggests that, after we create a physical impression of our antagonist, we find out what her objective is, dig into her motivation, and create background for her that generates some sympathy — a major turning point from childhood or a powerful secret that can emerge later in the book.

Not everyone agrees with that approach, however. James Frey, on the other hand, says “in some cases, it is neither necessary nor perhaps even desirable to create the villain as a fully fleshed-out, well-rounded multidimensional character.” Many readers just want to a bad guy they can despise, and are not interested in finding out about his inner motives or his deprived childhood. That would dilute our satisfaction in finally seeing him getting his just deserts.

Frey does feel it’s extremely important to create a convincing, truly nasty villain, one who is “ruthless, relentless, and clever and resourceful, as well as being a moral and ethical wack job,” and one who is “willing to crush anyone who gets in his way,” but doesn’t feel it’s necessary to give us a great deal of information on the villain.

As kids, we loved to see good prevail over evil, and the nastier the villain, the harder they fell — and the greater our satisfaction. Perhaps Frey’s “damn good villain” hearkens back to those times, and his ultimate demise evokes greater reader satisfaction. Forget analyzing the bad guy — just build him up, then take him out!

On the other hand, many readers today are more sophisticated and want to get away from the caricatures of our popular literary heritage… hence, advice from writers like Ephron and Bell to develop more multidimensional antagonists with a backstory and clear motivations.

I’d say there’s room for both approaches in modern fiction, and probably the thriller genre favors the “just plain mean and nasty” villain. Never mind the psychological analysis of the bad guy—we just want to see Jack Reacher, Joe Pike or [fill in your favorite thriller hero or heroine] kick butt!

What do you think? Make the villain nasty, evil and cruel through and through, or give him some redeeming qualities to make him more realistic? Show some of his background and motivations, or just stick with his current story goals and plans?

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog at

Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).

Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”

Copyright © Jodie Renner, October 2011

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

What is a Small Thriller?


By Steven Rigolosi

At some point in our writing careers, most of us wrestle with the definitions of genres and subgenres. What exactly is a mystery? How does it differ (if at all) from a crime novel? Is it all right if characters use profanity in my cozy? What is suspense and how do I create it? Or, more importantly, how does the reader define and experience suspense? And of course for the debut author, are my perceptions and definitions in line with what agents and editors want?

We hope we can answer these questions by the time the book is published. In my internal dialogue, I think I have written a caper/cozy (Who Gets the Apartment?), a novel of psychological suspense (Circle of Assassins), and an urban satire (Androgynous Murder House Party).

Never in any of my outlining, plotting, or positioning self-discussions did I consider that I might be writing THRILLERS.

Why? Because to me a thriller is a Big Book with Big Players. Perhaps the protagonist is John or Jane Q. Public, but John or Jane inevitably comes up against Major Forces: the government, a renegade faction of the FBI, an international spy or terrorist network filled with moles and triple agents, or a global corporation with unlimited money, resources, and power. Or Bioengineers doing unsavory things with the human genome for profit. High-speed chases through Zurich, Abu Dhabi, Prague, Johannesburg, and Taiwan…Big Things. At stake is the fate of the Human Race, not to mention Morality, Country, Liberty, and Family.

But, after taking a second look at my work, I ask myself: Must a thriller be Big?

Most of us, whether readers or writers, have a fairly small sphere of influence. We work, we spend time with family and friends, we take a couple of weeks’ vacation each year. If our worlds are small in comparison to those of international jet-setters, perhaps we can have “smaller” thrillers where various microworlds interact, where life-changing events happen to everyday people who are not engaged in ferreting out Al Qaeda cells.

If I think in these terms, then maybe Circle of Assassins might be called a “small thriller.” It tells the intersecting stories of five unnamed people who make a pact to exchange murderous favors. Their tales (and identities) unfold as they tell their stories, describe why their victims deserve to meet their fate at the hands of an assassin, and live with the aftermath of the killings.

One character, who grew up impoverished, is willing to fight to the death to preserve the tiny Cape Cod home she purchased with her life savings. Another is a traditional Italian-American whose father has installed Old-World ways into him – traditions that clash with modern expectations regarding family and gender roles. A third is an academic who sees her department chair as the living embodiment of white privilege.

Each of these people sets events in motion that have ripple effects among smaller communities: an extended family, a college campus, a suburban neighborhood. The drama that unfolds is personal and intense - definitely not as world-changing as pharmaceutical companies manipulating national governments, but, I am hoping, more immediate and more at the level at which the average person lives his or her life, encountering smaller-scale villains who are just as greedy, manipulative, or power-hungry as those CEOs and Directors of Government Agencies.

Still, I don’t think we’ll be seeing any novels subtitled “A Small Thriller” any time soon.

But if you wanted to give it a try…StevenRigolosi

Here are Three Things Your “Small Thriller” Needs:

1. Character development.

A lot of “big thrillers” are criticized for stereotypical or undeveloped characters. A small thriller offers an opportunity to combine a thrilling plot with intense character study.

2. A tight page count.

The big thrillers often come in at about 400 pages. A small thriller covers much less of the world (and has much less, perhaps even zero, jet-setting), so it might be able to tell its story in a tight, taut 300 pages.

3. Plot twists and a memorable ending.

Regardless of its size, a thriller has to thrill. This means a good story with plenty of surprises, turnabouts, betrayals, unexpected twists, and – my favorite – a surprise ending.

Question: Do you think you’ve written a small thriller? How has it worked for you?

Steven Rigolosi is the author of the Tales from the Back Page series. The most recent installment is Androgynous Murder House Party. He lives in Northern New Jersey and is at work on the next book.Visit him on Goodreads.

If you are a debut suspense or thriller [even small thriller like me] author whose book will release within the next year, we invite you to join International Thriller Writers (ITW) Debut Author Program. Click this link to learn how.

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photo credit: Miranda Parker

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can A Real Spy Write a Spy Thriller?


3 Things to Consider when Your Day Job is the stuff of Novels

by Alma Katsu

When I was an analyst at CIA, many of my coworkers thought about sitting down one day and writing a spy novel. Obviously, few did. (Even I didn’t: my novel, The Taker, is historical with a supernatural element and had nothing to do with my intelligence career.)

But one analyst had penned a spoof of The Hunt for Red October as if it had been written in the rigid style taught to analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence. I wish I could show it to you—I’ve been told that a copy is floating around the Internet, but I couldn’t find it—because it perfectly illustrates the difference between being a spy in real life and being one in a novel. Needless to say, it made real intelligence analysts laugh so hard they’d blow Coke through their noses when they read it.

I worked in intelligence for nearly thirty years, splitting my time between the National Security Agency (known to you civilians as “the super-secret National Security Agency”) and CIA. Thirty years is a long time to do anything, long enough to ingrain the many quirks and peculiarities of the intelligence business into my DNA. (For instance, I find I must correct the inaccurate statement I made above, though it is a common misconception: technically, intelligence professionals are not “spies.” The people they recruit to give up secrets are spies.) almakatsu

I was midway through my career as an analyst when I decided to return to writing fiction, something I’d abandoned once I started at NSA, as being a published writer is pretty much incompatible with working in intelligence. When literary agents found out about my day job, they’d invariably encourage me to write a spy novel. “You could show what it’s really like,” they’d say, and I took them at their word.

So I wrote a spy novel. It was a lot of work. I wanted to pick the right international conflict, one that I found interesting and I thought Americans should know more about. I wanted it to be accurate: my professional reputation was on the line.

I showed it to agents. To say they were underwhelmed is putting it kindly. I remember one telling me pointedly, “No one wants to read about someone doing their job.”

Of course, many writers are perfectly able to write great thrillers based on their day job: bookshelves are crammed with novels written by doctors, lawyers, police officers, pathologists, detectives, military personnel, police, you name it. For me, the decision not to write spy thrillers came down to this: it wasn’t fun. To me, writing is a means to be somewhere I want to be, with characters I want to be around—an escape. Writing spy novels kept me tethered to my workaday world, and it wasn’t rejuvenating.

You may be in a similar conundrum. What should you do if you’ve got a day job that seems custom-made for a novel but your heart is in writing an epic fantasy? Here are a few things you might want to consider:

1. Platform:

Having that killer day job—Navy SEAL, coroner for LA county—is a leg up for a writer, whether you decide to use it for your novel or not. Even though my book, The Taker, has nothing to do with the world of intelligence, mention of it tends to give me an extra second’s worth of consideration with reviewers and the publicity machinery. There’s a trade off, though: it’s really easy to confuse your potential audience about your product. They may be drawn to the killer day job and have no interest in your type of book (zombie apocalypse, romance.) If you go this route, you need to scrupulously manage your platform to ensure it doesn’t affect how your book is perceived.

Taker US cover final2. Your work leaks into your writing anyway:

You know how people are always advising you to ‘write what you know’? I’ve found if you worked in a particular environment for a long time, you’ve absorbed enough of its culture that it’s going to come out in your writing. In other words, the ‘what you know’ will come through anyway, even if you don’t use specifics. For instance, I thought I’d left the spy business behind when I wrote The Taker, but someone at the publishing house pointed out that all my characters tend to be secretive and manipulative, never telling the truth when a cleverly managed facsimile of it will do. It hit me between the eyes: I’d duplicated the atmosphere at my former job.

3. Hold it in reserve:

Never say never. You may find one day that the prospect of writing that trial novel (if you’re a lawyer) or heist novel (if you’re a jewel thief) suddenly appeals. Now that I’m no longer working for any three-letter agencies, I’m thinking that one day I may come up with an idea for a spy novel that I can’t resist. Particularly if the series I’m writing now doesn’t work out. As a working writer, you owe it to yourself to use every tool in your toolbox.

Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker, the first in a trilogy of novels that have been compared to the early works of Anne Rice: historical thrillers with a supernatural element. The Taker was named one of the Best Debut Novels of 2011 ay ALA Booklist magazine. The second novel in the trilogy, The Reckoning, comes out in June 2012. She also blogs for the Huffington Post on intelligence and policy.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Art of Suspense by A.J. Scudiere

Wait for it . . . wait for it . . .

Every thriller depends on suspense. Without it, it’s just another tale. Like most things, suspense is both an art and a science. The science can be learned, but the art takes talent and practice – and the best suspense writers have both. To be honest, part of the art is learning when to ignore the science, but you have to know both first.

All thrillers have a uniform goal: mess with the readers’ sleep patterns! Up all night, calling in sick to work, nearly exasperated at the inability to put a bookmark in it and get anything else done. Those are the signs of a thriller done well.

So how do you do it?

Step 1 – Begin in the middle. Okay, you can begin at the beginning. But when you hit chapter three, go back and erase chapter one and probably chapter two as well. Open with the strangest line you have (“The bird asked him how his day went”) or the one that would make the least sense if taken out of context (“The boy crawled along the ceiling”). These require explanation . . . and the reader will have to follow along to find out.

Step 2 – Cut out background information. (Why did she shoot her boss?) Don’t give in to the temptation to put it there. You can add it later. (A lover’s spat? Blackmail? Corporate espionage?) The wait makes the reading intriguing and keeps the pages turning. This step is nearly the opposite of the next step, and they need to be used in concert. The art comes in deciding which to use when.

Step 3 – Set up your punches. Think about a sitcom (follow me on this one for a minute . . .) The best sitcom jokes are the ones that build throughout the show, so that by the time the punchline comes around, you have all the pieces you need. Key ideas and occurrences should never be followed by an explanation – just like in a joke. If an explanation is needed beforehand, cut it into tiny pieces and disperse it throughout the prior info.

Step 4 – Don’t explain. Trust your readers to get it. You can only go for a certain audience – and the best thrillers assume the audience is smart enough to catch on. (A man walks into a bar . . . and says ‘ouch’. Because it’s a bar, like a beam, not like where you drink – Yup, I lost you at ‘because’.) A good beta-reader will let you know if you need more info.

Step 4b – Assume the reader isn’t a specialist. This harkens back to steps 4 and 3. You do need to explain anything that’s not in the general knowledge pool. Dice it into tiny pieces and sprinkle them liberally into the text, so that when the student shows up late for his LSAT, the reader already knows that he won’t be let in, and that the next test isn’t until February, thus keeping him out of law school this year.

Step 5 – Tie it up. But please, not too neatly. If I read another thriller where the killer explains himself to a victim while the good guys get into place, I’m going to . . . (sorry. I read yet another one of those at 10am this morning.) Please! I beseech you: Don’t do it! (Step 4 also applies to characters!)

These are just some of the key pieces to great thrillers. Sometimes the suspense is intrinsic to the story, and other times it can be edited in. Of course, there are more things you need, but we could never hit them all in one spot. What are some of the other essential ingredients for building suspense you can think of?

So bring on the edge-of-your-seat, roller-coaster, can’t-put-it-down-even-though-it’s-four-AM stories! I can’t wait . . .

* * *

It’s A.J.’s world. A strange place where patterns jump out and catch the eye, very little is missed, and most of it can be recalled with a deep breath. It’s different from the world the rest of us inhabit. But the rest of us can see it – when we read. In this world, the smell of Florida takes three weeks to fully leave the senses, and the air in Dallas is so thick that the planes “sink” to the runways rather than actually landing.

For A.J., texture reigns supreme. Whether it’s air or blood or virus, it can be felt and smelled. School is a privilege and two science degrees (a BA and MS) are mere pats on the back compared to the prize of knowledge. Teaching is something done for fun (and the illusion of a regular paycheck) and is rewarding at all levels, grade school through college. No stranger to awards and national recognition for outstanding work as a teacher, trainer and curriculum writer, like most true teachers, the real joy for A.J. is in the “oh!” - the moment when the student sees the connection and it all makes sense.

A.J. Scudiere has lived in Florida and Los Angeles among a handful of other places. Recent whims have brought the dark writer to Tennessee, where home is a deceptively normal looking neighborhood just outside Nashville.

Follow A.J. on Twitter: @ajscudiere

or at