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.

Related The Thrill Begins Articles:

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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

SO MUCH CONTROVERSY: To post or not post a book review on

image Losing its Book Reviews Footing or Literally Misunderstood

Gaining a great book review is very important for a debut author. Reviews help us stand out in the sea of books that release around the same time that ours do. Book reviews help readers find us. Depending on the media outlet, reviews can get us placed as featured authors in book festivals and shelved in independent bookstores.

Today book reviewer, Curiosity Builds blogger, and former book store manager of LA’s Mystery Bookstore Linda S. Brown shares her insights about book reviews, and posts a controversial water cooler topic about the review system. Please join us today, as we discuss the topic of Book Reviews. At the end of Brown’s post we’ve also added links to related articles that buttress Brown’s argument.

We hope you find this post insightful and please share your thoughts with us.

-Miranda Parker for ITW Big Thrills


SO MUCH CONTROVERSY: To post or not post a book review on

by Linda S. Brown

Over the past few months, several authors have asked me to read and review their books. I am honored by those requests. Moreover, I am touched and flattered that those authors respect my opinion enough to ask me. But when those authors asked me to post my reviews to Amazon, I cringed.

No, Amazon did not single-handedly destroy indie brick-and-mortar bookstores. However, it has dealt death blows to many and weakened scores more. And that truth greatly disturbs me.

And… I am uncomfortable with the review system. For those unfamiliar with the system, allows anyone [who has an account] to post a review of a book and give the book a value based on a 1 to 5 rating system (with 5 being best.) After I did some homework I came to the conclusion that this system is flawed on at least two fronts:

  1. Some Amazon reviewers are paid. As far as I can determine, they are not identified. That strikes me as misleading.
  2. The Amazon review and rating system is directly related to sales -- and I don’t feel comfortable with that since I do not work for that retail establishment. I don’t begrudge the authors making money by any means, but why should I, as a reviewer, put more money in the pockets of The difference between Amazon and book blogs like LibraryThing, GoodReads, (my own blog), and publications such as Crimespree Magazine is that will receive direct revenue from someone, who read my review and chose to buy the book based on my review. LibraryThing, GoodReads, Crimespree Magazine, and the rest would not.
On another note, I’ve read some of the reviews on while doing my reconnaissance work: I chose authors whose work I knew and whose books I’ve read. Some of the reviews were well-crafted and thoughtful. Some, not so much. But that could be true in any forum. A review is, after all, primarily one reader’s opinion, informed or otherwise.

Author K. Bennett (aka James Scott Bell, author of a mainstream suspense series featuring an L.A. based attorney named Buchanan, as well as several inspirational novels – and some popular writing manuals) recently asked me if I’d consider posting to Amazon my review of the first book in his new series, PAY ME IN FLESH: MALLORY CAINE, ZOMBIE AT LAW. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I gave it high marks on LibraryThing and GoodReads, and I posted a review on my blog. Jim’s request – innocent enough – sort of sparked this whole debate.

I threw it out to the Twittersphere to discover what other people thought about Amazon reviews. And the issue brought up some lively Twitter and email debates. Some authors felt Amazon ratings and reviews have a direct impact on their sales, and also broaden their exposure to markets they might not otherwise reach. Some authors disagreed. Some authors, bloggers, reviewers and readers refused to look at the ratings and reviews on Amazon, for the same reasons I listed above.

Thriller writer Meg Gardiner (CHINA LAKE, THE DIRTY SECRETS CLUB – which I enjoyed so much while working at The Mystery Bookstore that I made it one of my monthly picks – and more, including her latest, THE NIGHTMARE THIEF) admitted that she had “been surprised to hear from readers who say they hesitate to buy a book that had any 1-star Amazon reviews. To me that sound incredibly shortsighted. Almost every book has at least one 1-star review. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK have 1-star reviews, for Pete’s sake…” However, Meg further pointed out that she understood “why some authors count on good Amazon reviews, especially if their books don’t get a lot of editorial coverage.”

When I expressed my reservation to Jim about posting a review on Amazon, I asked him what made him think people took them seriously. Who takes them seriously? Do authors? Do critics? Do publishers?

Jim’s response was that “readers take (the reviews and ratings on Amazon) seriously, so publishers and authors care because they could affect sales.”

Jim takes marketing very seriously. In addition to offering seminars about the writing process, he also teaches about marketing the finished book.

In the current publishing environment, we all understand the desire for good reviews, good ratings, and most importantly, good sales numbers. I am not currently receiving any compensation for the reviews I’ve written. However, if it ever came to pass that I am compensated for offering my opinions, it would be clear that I am being paid to read the books and to work with the authors.

Meanwhile, I am delighted to continue to read and review books sent to me by authors, publicists and publishers. I will post those reviews on LibraryThing, GoodReads,, and I will submit those reviews to other blogs and publications, including the award-winning Crimespree Magazine.

And, meanwhile, I think I will leave the posting of reviews on Amazon to others, until such time as the Amazon system is more clear, open and equitable.

Laughing Linda_small Linda S. Brown was the Assistant Manager of The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles for 6 years, where she leveraged her love of crime fiction into a position in which she developed and coordinated author events, acted as liaison with publishers and public relations firms, and coordinated media campaigns. Since the closing of the bookstore earlier this year, Linda has become Book Lover at Large, in search of self and a job; meanwhile, she is reading and reviewing crime and young adult novels, writing articles for various blogs, and in the process of developing her own book-loving blog, CuriosityBuilds.Com.

Connect also with Linda S. Brown at:


Related Links:

Now that Linda has opened the doors to this great question, let’s discuss:

Do you agree with Linda’s decision? Do you think’s Reviews have the same value as before? Why are Amazon reviews important to your readership?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller, by Jodie Renner

20 Essential Elements of a Bestselling Thriller

We all want the same thing, right? No, not *that* thing. What we suspense writers and fans of the genre want is a book that leaves us draped over the edge of our seats, hanging on the author's every next word. While no one can guarantee a seat-of-the-pants ride--there's a certain ineffable magic that takes place on the page between writer and reader--in this week's blog post Jodie Renner comes close. Follow these tips, breathe them in and internalize them, and you will have done the thing we're all here for. You'll have written a thriller.

If you want your thriller or romantic suspense to be a compelling page-turner, make sure you’ve included most or all of these twenty elements:

    1. A protagonist who’s both ordinary and heroic.

    Rather than having a “Superman” invincible-type hero, it’s more satisfying to the readers if you use a regular person who’s thrown into stressful, then increasingly harrowing situations, and must summon all of his courage, strength and inner resources to overcome the odds, save himself and other innocent people, and defeat evil.

    2. A likeable, sympathetic protagonist

    The readers need to be able to warm up to your main character quickly, to start identifying with her; otherwise they won’t really care what happens to her.So no cold, selfish, arrogant characters for heroes or heroines!

    3. A worthy adversary for the protagonist

    Your antagonist needs to be as clever, strong, resourceful and determined as your protagonist, but also truly nasty, immoral and frightening.

    4. An interesting setting

    Readers like to find out about places they haven’t been, whether it’s the seedy side of Chicago, glitzy Hollywood, rural Kentucky, the mountains of Colorado, or the bayous of Louisiana — or more distant, exotic locations. And milk your setting for all it’s worth.

    5. A story that fits the protagonist and vice-versa

    If it doesn’t, change your protagonist — or your story line. You can always use your present one in another novel.

    6. An inciting incident

    What happens to the main character to set the story events in action? Make it tense and compelling.

    7. A great plot, with ongoing conflict and tension

    You need a big story question and plenty of intrigue. And every scene should contain tension and conflict of some kind. If it doesn’t, delete it.

    8. Lots of suspense

    Keep the readers on the edge of their seats, turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. See my blog post, “Heightening the Suspense,” Sept. 26, at

    9. Multiple viewpoints

    Narrating the story from various points of view, including that of the villain, will add interest, complexity and suspense to your novel. But don’t head-hop within a scene! Wait for a new scene or chapter to change viewpoints.

    10. A tight, generally fast-paced writing style

    Streamline your writing to improve flow and pacing. Go through and take out all unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs, and any repetitive phrases, events or ideas. Thrillers are not the genre to wax eloquent.

    11. Increasing danger

    Keep putting your hero in deeper and deeper trouble, to stretch his courage, determination, physical abilities and inner resources to the maximum — and increase the reader’s admiration and emotional investment in him!

    12. Troubles that hit home

    Endanger the protagonist or someone close to her, to add a personal dimension and more stress to the threats and conflicts.

    13. Internal struggling of the protagonist

    Give her a moral dilemma; show his inner conflict. Make them complex and fascinating; never perfect, complacent, or overly confident.

    14. Critical turning points

    Present your hero with life-or-death decisions and show his anxiety, tension, and indecision.

    15. Obstacles in the way

    Your heroine runs out of gas on a lonely road; your hero’s weapon falls into the river far below; he is wounded and can’t run; her cell phone battery is dead; whatever can go wrong does, and more.

    16. Enough clues

    Be fair. Use foreshadowing and layer in clues and info as you go along, to slowly reveal the plot points and character backstory and motivation to the reader.

    17. Twists and surprises

    Write in a few unexpected plot twists, but make sure that, in retrospect, they make sense to the readers.

    18. A compelling climax

    Put the protagonist at a disadvantage in the final conflict with the antagonist, to heighten the stakes. Pile on the adversity the hero has to overcome at the end.

    19. A satisfying ending

    Leave the unhappy or unresolved endings for literary fiction. Let the good guy overcome the bad guy — by a hair.

    20. Psychological growth and change in the hero/heroine

    Adversity has made him or her stronger, braver, wiser, a better person.

Copyright ©Jodie Renner, September 2011

Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Her services range from developmental and substantive editing to final copyediting and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques and plot outline analyses. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.

To join the (ITW) International Thriller Writers Debut Author Program, please visit this link: