Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing Effective Dialogue by Jodie Renner

Dialogue is one of the first things agents and editors look at when they receive a manuscript for consideration. If the dialogue is wooden, stilted, and artificial, most agents will assume that the rest of the writing is amateurish, and the manuscript will be quickly rejected. Here are some concrete ways to make your dialogue more compelling and natural-sounding.

Dialogue needs tension, conflict and emotion

This one is huge. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story."

  • Leave out the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “Nice day,” stuff, and cut to the chase. Skip past introductions and all that empty blah-blah small talk.
  • Avoid any kind of long monologue or dialogue that just imparts information, with no tension or emotion.
  • Don’t use dialogue as “filler” – if it doesn’t advance the plot, heighten the conflict, or deepen the characterization, take it out.
  • Include lots of emotional or sexual tension and subtext in your dialogue. Silence, interrupting, or abruptly changing the subject can be effective, too.

Loosen up the dialogue

The most common problem with dialogue for new writers is that it often sounds too stiff and formal. Here are some easy, quick tips for loosening up the dialogue to make it sound more natural:

  • Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Can you cut some words out, or use more common, everyday conversational words, rather than more “correct” words? In conversation, use “bought” rather than “purchased,” “use” rather than “utilize,” “but” instead of “however,” etc.
  • Use contractions. Change “I am” to “I’m”, “we will” to “we’ll”, “do not” to “don’t”, “they will” to “they’ll,” etc.
  • Break up those long, grammatically correct complete sentences. Nobody talks in complete sentences in informal conversations with friends (or enemies) and family, especially in stressful situations. Frequently, use some short sentence fragments, and one-word answers.
  • Don’t have one person go on and on about a subject. Fiction is not the place for a lecture on a topic, or somebody speaking at length about himself. It’s not natural, and your readers aren’t interested in long monologues! Have the other person interrupt to ask a question, give their opinion, seek clarification, change the subject, etc.

Keep it real

Avoid unnatural dialogue caused by having the characters say things they would never say, just to impart some information to the readers. An extreme example of this would be a character saying to his sister: “As you know, our parents died in a car crash five years ago.” Using dialogue this way to get some information across to the reader is artificial and a sure sign of an amateur writer. Work the information in subtly, without having one character say something that the other would obviously already know.

Give each character his or her own voice and style

Make sure all your characters don’t sound the same (like the author).

First, pay attention to differences in gender, age, social status, education, geographical location, historical era, etc. Some characters, especially professionals, will use more correct English and longer sentences, while a cowboy or blue-collar worker will probably use rougher language, with a lot of one- or two-word questions or answers, sprinkled liberally with expletives.

Then, think about individual personality differences within that social group, and the situation. Is your character: Shy or outgoing? Talkative or quiet? Formal or casual? Modern or old-fashioned? Confident or nervous? Tactful or blunt? Serious or lighthearted? Relaxed or stressed? And give each character their own little quirks and slang expressions, but exercise caution when using slang or expletives. (More on that in another article.)

Gender differences

Bear in mind that men and women tend to express themselves differently.

In general, men are terser and more direct; they usually prefer to talk about things rather than people or feelings; and they often use brief or one-word answers.

Women, on the other hand, like to talk about people and relationships; often hint at or talk around a subject, tend to express themselves in more complete sentences; and often want to discuss their feelings.

These differences are especially important to keep in mind if you’re a female author writing dialogue for male characters, and vice-versa.So to keep your dialogue natural-sounding, keep it loose and casual (unless it’s a formal situation), add lots of tension, and give each character his or her own distinctive voice and style.

© Jodie Renner, March 2011

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.”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Important is Research in a Novel? by Brad Taylor

Ask twenty different authors what they think about the relative importance of research for a novel, and you’ll get twenty different opinions. On one side of the scale, some will say it’s irrelevant and that people read for good writing, not good research, and that water-tight fact-finding will never overcome bad prose.

I’m on the other side of the scale. Yes, the writing comes first, but nailing the details only adds to the effect. There is no downside. Not bothering to conduct rudimentary research into the subject matter, in my mind, is insulting to the reader. It smacks of laziness, especially if the reader has some grasp of the subject. In fact, as a reader myself I can only get so far in a book if the information blatantly conflicts with the facts that I know. I’m not asking anyone to be an expert, but at least show me you can find Wikipedia. Or buy a Guns and Ammo magazine. I’ll forgive almost anything if the author shows me he tried.

Because of this, I’m rabid about research. The knowledge base I gained from my previous career is absolutely essential as a starting point, but I don’t have an encyclopedic memory. Suffice it to say, I have to do an enormous amount of fact checking, from something as minute as how long a certain flight would take and the time-zones involved to whether a particular weapon fires from the open-bolt position. Invariably, whenever I try to wing it based on my memory and experiences alone, I find out I’m wrong. I’ve learned to fact-check just about everything. Luckily, if I can’t find the answer on my own, odds are very good that I know someone who can.

There is a trap with this, and I’ve fallen into it more times than I can count, and that is you want to show off the research you’ve done, babbling on about interesting but irrelevant tidbits, with the plot suffering as a result. I’ve just come to understand that out of all the research I do, only about two percent will make it into the book. Especially when talking about locations.

I’m a little bit of a perfectionist when it comes to real-world settings, and I research them relentlessly. I’ve traveled all over the world, which is a good thing when I want to describe a setting, but make no mistake; I have to really study locations to get them right. For example, I’ve been to both Central and South America, but I have never been to Guatemala or Belize, major settings in One Rough Man. I had to research both forever, and ultimately didn’t use 99% of what I found. In the end I’m sure that someone who’s actually spent some time there will find flaws in my descriptions. I’m okay with that, because I gave it my best shot.

When I have the ability to do first-hand research, I do so. The Atlanta airport scene is a pretty good example of that. Basically, Jennifer and Pike get stopped at customs and have to break out of the secondary interrogation facility. I tried to write how they would evade capture, and escape what’s become one of the most secure areas since 9/11, using my own recollection of the airport. When I was done, I realized that I really didn’t know enough about the security of the airport, and that the way I had written it was a little hokey. I have been through that airport probably 500 times, but I’d never looked at the security from an evasion standpoint. One thing I was convinced of, though, was they weren’t going to escape by using normal passenger corridors. I called up some pilot friends of mine and proposed a simple question: how can I get out of the Atlanta airport without going the usual passenger route? They gave me the breakdown of what crew members do, to include locations of employee lounges and employee bus routes. From there, I simply flew to the airport and retraced Pike and Jennifer’s steps from customs, noting the security in place such as cameras, alarms, and checkpoints. After casing the place it was pretty easy to figure out how they could do it.

Since I’m not independently wealthy, I couldn’t afford to do what I did with the Atlanta scene for the scenes in Bosnia, Oslo, or Guatemala. In those cases, I had to rely on the internet, my memory and friends with specialized knowledge. There’s a military phrase called Open Source Intelligence, which basically means, “read the paper and see what you can find out”. In today’s times, that means the internet, and it’s amazing what’s out there, from airport databases and flikr, to Google Earth and 360cities. Surprisingly, my favorite source is a blog from backpacking college students. Those folks go everywhere, and talk about everything from security at border crossings to the best way to get a taxi, complete with pictures. Suffice to say, just about anything can be found if one looks hard enough.

For instance, I’ve been inside the White House situation room – once – but I’m certainly not well versed on the White House floor plan, something I needed to be if Kurt was going to keep seeing the president. Obviously, getting in and stomping around the president’s personal space was problematic. Luckily, there’s an entire website dedicated to the history of the White House, complete with the floor plan through the years and photos.

I try to do that with any scene I write, but I’ll be honest, if I need something, I’ll create it. For instance, the Four Courts pub where Pike is ambushed is a real location in Clarendon, Virginia. The streets around it are accurate, as are the Metro stops to get there. I cased that area as well, trying to figure out how I would ambush Pike (and get a Guinness at the pub). I planned the ambush realistically, but added an alley to the left of the pub. It doesn’t exist in real life, but it does in my book. I know that sounds hypocritical, but I did this because in the end the writing does come first. The alley was critical to the story.

I’ll fake things for reasons other than the story as well. Writers without my background can guess how widget X works, and if they get it right everyone wonders how they got the information. My problem is the opposite: I do know how things work, and most of that knowledge is classified, so I have to spend a lot of time tempering what I know when I write, even if it seems mundane. For instance, I’m currently working on a scene for book two where terrorists attack an Army Ammunition Supply Point. I traveled to and studied the ASP, then simply wrote how I would hit it to get to the ammunition inside. After I was done, I read it and thought, “What the hell are you doing? You’ve just written a blueprint on how to attack a U.S. Federal facility!” My insider knowledge, coupled with my tactical skill set, had made it too real. I had to go back and throw in some red herrings. I know I’ll get dinged on that by someone with the same knowledge as me, saying, “That would never work,” but that’s the point.

In the end, I fall on the “research” bandwagon, although I realize there’s no way I’m going to be perfect. Mistakes will happen, no matter how much research I do, and I want to kick myself when that occurs, but it’s just the way of writing. Pike steals a Chevy Cutlass in Guatemala City to escape, and after all of the research on the city itself, I’m told by an advanced copy reader – after I’d blessed the final manuscript – that Chevrolet didn’t make the Cutlass. Oldsmobile did.

Mistakes like that don’t make me throw my hands up at the futility of it all, because I owe it to the reader. My cut-line on real versus make-believe is the story itself. If you make something up for the purposes of the plot, knowing it’s wrong, and it makes the story stronger, then you’ve enhanced the enjoyment of the reader. On the other hand, using the story as an excuse for a lack of research is really just a shortcut – and the reader will know it. Maybe not all readers will care, but even if only one does, you’ve failed.

Brad Taylor, Lieutenant Colonel (ret.), is a twenty-one-year veteran of the U.S. Army Infantry and Special Forces, including eight years with the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, popularly known as Delta Force. He retired in 2010 and now lives in Charleston, SC with his wife and two daughters. For more information visit him online at

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

3 Publishing Survival Tips from Taylor Stevens

Birthing THE INFORMATIONIST has been a lot like birthing a child—only, with a much, much longer gestation period: There are plenty of unknowns to worry about while a growing baby is safe inside the womb, but all you can really do, outside of a test here or there, is wait and see.

There is mounting excitement with the passing weeks and developmental stages, discomfort with body changes, maybe a little hesitation about the looming responsibilities that will come when she enters the world. There's even a reason or two to wish it were possible to just keep the baby safe inside for longer, until, after awhile, none of that matters because after so much time, and so much growing, you just want that thing born already.

And then, there she is in real life, all touchable and beautiful. With the birth, many fears and worries are put to rest, while new ones rise to take their place. The worry won’t end. Ever. Not even when you’re old and gray.

Yup, that’s pretty much exactly what it’s like bringing a book into the world.

Unfortunately there’s no comprehensive “What to Expect when You’re Expecting” for novel writers—not the kind that takes you through the rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs—the kind of rolling highs and lows that make you wonder if the birthing analogy carries over into hormones as well.

The best you can do is read the wise words of those who’ve come before: to share in the laughter, the joy, the tears and the frustrations, and learn what you can from the knowledge of others. In that vein, I add now to the collective wisdom by drawing on my own experience:

Doubting yourself is a good thing. Sometimes.

With so much already written on the issue of self-doubt—more specifically, how to banish it, and how to deconstruct and neutralize self-criticism before that same self-criticism in turn neutralizes your ability to create—I figure these issues are par for the writer’s course. Which is good, I suppose, because I second guess myself when it comes to my creative efforts. I second guess a lot. And I’d hate to think I’m the only novelist full of doubt—I much prefer believing that I’m in good company.

Bertrand Russell is quoted as saying, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."

I stole that quote off of the Wikipedia page for the Dunning–Kruger effect. If you haven’t already read about said effect, I highly recommend that you do. It will help you realize that there’s an upside to self-doubt, before you go on to quash it and then continue writing.

It’s impossible to write something that everyone “gets.”

The advice that I have given many yet to be published friends who have come to me asking for assurance that their writing is pleasing or good enough, is this: “Stop writing to the crowd.” Now that THE INFORMATIONIST has been published, and my craft has been laid bare to anyone who cares to comment, this is advice that I also have to take for myself. But the truth is, it’s impossible to please everyone, and what resonates with one person might seem stupid and childish to another.

There is only one person you can truly write for without pretense, without holding back, without fear, and that is you. Write for yourself. Write what resonates in your heart. Write what makes you laugh. Write what makes you cry, and write what you enjoy. When you do this, your writing will be true, and although the entire world will not appreciate it, there will be those who do, and that is enough.

Publishing takes a long time.

The journey to publication is exactly that: a journey. For some, the trip is shorter than others. Mine took roughly six years. I don’t know how it works for other people, but for me, it took an incredible amount of focus to stick to something for that long without knowing if I’d ever, ever, see the reward for my effort—or even what the reward might be. I’m not here to dissuade you from the journey, only to let you know that it’s not always enjoyable, and based on what I’ve heard from some just starting out, the destination might not be what you think it will be. That said, the only way to see the publication destination is sticking it out for the entire way, and oh, what a journey it is.

Taylor Stevens is the author of the critically praised thriller, The Informationist, first in the Vanessa Michael Munroe series (Crown).

Born in New York State, and into the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult spun from the Jesus Movement of the '60s, Stevens was raised in communes across the globe. Separated from her family at age twelve and denied an education beyond sixth grade, she lived on three continents and in a dozen countries before reaching fourteen. In place of schooling, the majority of her adolescence was spent begging on city streets at the behest of cult leaders, or as a worker bee child, caring for the many younger commune children, washing laundry and cooking meals for hundreds at a time. In her twenties, Stevens broke free in order to follow hope and a vague idea of what possibilities lay beyond. She now lives in Texas, and juggles fulltime writing with fulltime motherhood.




Thursday, March 17, 2011

How Did You Get Your Agent? by Allison Leotta

When I got engaged to the man who’s now my husband, the first question friends asked was: “How did he propose?” Now that I have a book in bookstores, the first question folks ask is: “How did you get your agent?” My story is one of incredible good luck and unexpected tragedy.

The most important thing I did was refine my manuscript until it was in the best possible shape I could manage. That took a while. I’m a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in D.C., so my day job is pretty intense. I wrote in the mornings before work and the evenings after work. I edited on weekends and during my kids’ naptimes. After two years of writing (and re-writing), I was satisfied that Law of Attraction was a compelling story of love and violence in the nation’s capital.

At that point, I knew I needed an agent. One how-to book suggested contacting everyone in the publishing industry with whom you have the slightest connection. I understood I’d probably send out 1000 query letters and get 999 rejections. I prepared. I bought reams of paper. I created a spreadsheet for rejections. I had several bottles of booze ready.

Then I thought about any personal connections and networks I had. I knew some folks in theater and children’s books; I sought their advice. I made a mental list of people I didn’t actually know, but with whom I had something in common. In that vein, I’d recently read a charming novel called The Opposite of Love, by Julie Buxbaum. Julie had graduated from Harvard Law School a few years after I did, although we’d never met. I shot her an email, and she ended up calling me. Julie was kind and generous with her time. She said her agent might be interested in Law of Attraction.

Julie’s agent, Elaine Koster, was something of a legend in the publishing industry, credited with “discovering” Stephen King and pulling The Kite Runner out of a slush pile. I sent Elaine my manuscript, glad that it was truly ready to be judged. A week later, Elaine called. She said she loved Law of Attraction and wanted to represent me. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Elaine and her colleague, Stephanie Lehmann, suggested some changes to Law of Attraction. It was amazing to have professional hands help craft the story. Then Elaine sold my book to Simon & Schuster. I was over the moon.

That was one of the last deals Elaine ever made. She died this summer, after a decades-long, secret battle with breast cancer.

I was devastated. Elaine was an advocate, teacher and friend. After her memorial service, I went home and cracked open one of the bottles of booze I hadn’t needed to use for rejection letters, and used it, instead, to give a solitary toast to the agent who launched my career but didn’t get to see my novel hit the bookshelves.

After Elaine died, I was at sea. I called an author whose novels I’d loved since I was in college. Earlier that year, Barbara Delinsky had given me some heartfelt advice about balancing writing, mommying and working. Now I asked her what to do in this situation. Barbara offered to put me in touch with her agent, Amy Berkower, the renowned president of Writers House. When Amy eventually offered to represent me, I felt like someone who’d been paddling in a life raft, suddenly pulled aboard the Queen Elizabeth and handed a winning lottery ticket.

Law of Attraction was published this October. So far, so good! I’ve been gratified to receive many wonderful reviews. I’ve also had a great time on my blog, where I critique what Law & Order: SVU gets right and wrong, from my perspective as a real-life prosecutor. And, in December, I signed a deal with Simon & Schuster to write two sequels to Law of Attraction.

I hope that in some cozy, book-lined office in the sky, Elaine Koster is smiling approvingly at the numbers on BookScan.

How did you get your agent?

Allison Leotta is a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington, D.C. She has been a federal prosecutor for ten years. Like her heroine in Law of Attraction, Allison started out in the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence cases. She now handles the most serious sex crimes in D.C. Allison is a graduate of Michigan State University and Harvard Law School. She lives with her husband (who is also a federal prosecutor) and their two sons in Takoma Park, Maryland. "Law of Attraction" is her first novel.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Interview with Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner is the critically-acclaimed #1 New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen novels, and the recipient of the 2010 Thriller Award for Best Novel. Her latest, Love You More (the latest in the D.D. Warren series), is in bookstores now. "Compelling and unexpected, this tale of mystery and maternal devotion shows Gardner at her very best." (Booklist, starred review) "Gardner sprinkles plenty of clues and inventive twists to keep readers off-kilter as the suspense builds to a realistic, jaw-dropping finale." (Publishers' Weekly) Lisa was kind enough to take a break in her national tour to field a few questions from members of the ITW Debut Author Program.

Chevy Stevens: How do you prepare to write--do you have detailed outlines, character sketches, timelines? Do you do your research upfront (and do you tape record your interviews with expert sources?)

Lisa Gardner: When I first started out as a writer, I'd prepare very detailed outlines, almost mini novels covering the major story arc and central "lesson learned" for the main characters. Ironically enough, I've gone from super anal retentive to an almost completely out of the mist writing style. These days, I spend the first three months of my writing process on research, which generally provides key plot points. Basically, I spend quality time with real world detectives explaining how they would investigate my fictional crime, and that becomes main plot points. Often also some plot twists, as detectives are very clever and generally complicate my crime along the way, just to amuse themselves. Oh, I never tape record detectives. They don't seem to like that, I want them to feel comfortable.

So that helps me with bare bones plot. The characters, on the other hand, I leave completely amorphous. Everyone is a bit good and everyone is a bit bad and I wait to see what they'll do to surprise me. I think it leads to more natural character development and I don't know...I feel like ironically enough, the less I plan, the better I plot. The book has a chance to shock me all on it's own, which is my favorite kind of writing day. Something happens I never saw coming but know immediately is exactly right. These are the moments that keep us all churning away. Because twenty years later, the process remains mysterious and magical and mesmerizing.

Carla Buckley: Lisa, what would you say has been the biggest change in the industry since you first began writing? What one piece of advice would you give a writer about to launch their first book into the current climate?

Lisa Gardner: Wow, I feel like a newbie again just from the past six months. I mean, distribution changed fundamentally fifteen years ago, when we went from tons of distributors to basically half a dozen. Then the independent bookstores started to fail. Then the mass merchadisers rose up. Now, the brick and mortar chains are on the auction block, while e-books are taking over the world. I guess what I think about it is that publishing has weathered major growing pains in the past. And each time people said the industry was dead and each time it emerged once again, different but still breathing. People do read. People do love books. As long as that's true, there's hope for us.

As for major advice for an author launching their first book in this industry--ironically enough, that advice hasn't changed in twenty years: write your second book. That's your job. Never forget it. Publishing is for publishers. Writing is for authors. You want a career, write your first book, then your second, then your third, then your fourth, then your fifth. That's how it's done, just like that.

Julie Kramer: Do you ever watch the TV show CASTLE and would you play in the author poker game if asked?

Lisa Gardner: I've never gotten to watch the show CASTLE, but I've heard it's excellent. I'm addicted to Glee, and believe Sue Sylvester is one of the best villains ever written, right up there with Hannibal Lector and Cruella De Vil. You hate her, you're shocked by her, sometimes you do cheer for her and often you even feel for her because every nasty thing she says contains a kernel of hard truth that's impossible to ignore. What can I say. I love a good villain.

* * *

Thanks for answering our questions, Lisa! We hope you have a great tour.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When Cooking Up A Thriller, The Plot Thickens by Gary Kriss

It’s winter here in the Berkshires. It seems it’s always winter here in the Berkshires, but that’s not true. Spring creeps out of its hole sometime in May, sees its shadow, then flees, guaranteeing us 6 more feet of snow. It’s the time of year when, among other things such as “are you sure the manuscript is that overdue,” a writer’s thoughts turn to stew (which is considerably better than having them turn to mush).

Since some of you might be new to stew—creating, not eating—here’s an old secret for proper preparation: make it thick. That way even if it's not a gourmet's delight, it'll be satisfying. Later on, when you've had some practice in stewing, you can add things to give it that certain something and take it to a higher level.

I rediscovered that “secret” at last year’s Thrillerfest in Manhattan when, over beers with some new found friends, the discussion turned to: Thrillers—plot-driven versus character-driven. Actually the discussion may have turned to: New York Baseball—Met-driven or Yankee-driven. Things were, and still are a little hazy. (I did mention that we were discussing things over beers, right?) But I'm pretty sure it was whether, in thrillers, plot or character rules.

I vaguely remember coming down on the side of plot trumping character (almost) every time, basing my reasoning on stew. It seemed perfectly logical at the time—brilliant, really. Unfortunately, I only recall snippets of it. (I may have forgotten to note that we were having a few beers at the time).

Like stews, make thrillers thick (in a good sense) I believe I may have said, so that they satisfy readers. Seems to me one of my companions asked how you thicken them, to which I responded “why with plot, of course.” I then went on to explain that thriller readers want plot. They want excitement. They want tremendous risks. Character? Character be damned! Come on—grab some safety scissors and a sheet of construction paper and within 10 minutes you can create characters as good if not better than those found in many successful thrillers.

I may have also said—but don’t hold me to it—that characters in thrillers can be superficial. If fact, it's often essential that they be superficial, lest they interfere with the plot. Readers don't need to have an intimate relationship with characters in a thriller. Many don't want one. What readers do need is to be infatuated with characters in a thriller. Not knowing much about them only increases the intrigue.

Now I do definitely remember one of my table mates asking whether thriller writers who say their books are driven by character are they simply pulling a lot of legs. I remember that because his the delicious cliché offered so many opportunities for witty retorts of all sorts. Alas, mine was a pedestrian “maybe.” There are also thriller writers who believe their books are character-driven, while having no concept of what a well-rounded character really is.

And then there are those thriller writers who are motivated by LC—Literary Correctness—to value character above plot. A very few may even manifest symptoms of acute newyorkermagazeosis, which the DSM-IV describes as the tendency to explain all aspects of fiction in terms of character while denying the existence of any sort of plot beyond "he said, she said."

Does this mean there aren’t thrillers where the characters are well-developed and yet the plot doesn't suffer? Sure there are, but think about it. Usually these characters appear in a series and have become more developed over the course of several books. Eventually memories blur and readers tend to believe that these characters were completely fleshed out right from the start.

By contrast, take a look at new characters in a series, who are usually antagonists. They remain our old, friendly paper constructs in contrast to the recurring protagonist(s) now sculpted in marble. Should they become recurring antagonists, well that's another story (and another novel and another).

This idea of the primacy of plot is neither mine nor new. Aristotle was one of its first advocates and, like Plato, he has had his fair share of (literary) footnotes ever since. My friend and fellow writer Stanley Solomon donned his university professor hat (or is that mortar board?) and explained to me that “character-driven” fiction is a much more recent concept, which really got kick-started in the 19th century. It’s premised on the notion that while there are but a few dozen different plots (can you say Plot-o), the number of characters is unlimited. The flaw in the ointment is that the permutation of combined plots is also unlimited.

Since Thrillerfest I’ve revisited the plot/character question a few times and picked up some more stew tips. These are general: cooks/authors have their own individual recipes, but all revolve around the basics. For example, besides thickness, you need to know when to add and remove ingredients. With thrillers, as with stews, timing is everything.

Here’s another: simmer, simmer, simmer. Sure, occasionally your mixture may need to come to a brief boil, but after that—simmer, simmer, simmer. And, like stew, there’s a big difference between a thriller that’s a pot-simmerer and a thriller that’s a potboiler!

And now the snow’s falling and my stomach's growling.

Put on the pot . . .

It's time to plot!

* * *

Thanks, Gary!!

Readers, what do you think? Are thrillers driven more by plot or character? Both?

* * *

Gary Kriss’s THE ZODIAC DECEPTION, about a con artist who having learned the art of illusion from Houdini is recruited by the OSS to use his skills for the ultimate deception: infiltrate the Nazi Occult Bureau and persuade Himmler to plot the assassination of Hitler, and its prequel, THE HOUDINI KILLER, will be published by TOR/Forge in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He has been writer for longer than he cares to remember, including a respectable stint with THE NEW YORK TIMES. When not involuntarily locked in a Berkshire Mountain attic, Kriss spends an inordinate amount of time trying not to embarrass his lovely minister wife, Pat, and otherwise exists solely to make her, his publisher, his editor, his agents, his dog and his cats proud of him. He still holds out hope that he can win over the dog. For more information, please visit Gary at