The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.
photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license
Space Wars and Daily Life “The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.
The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.
photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.
That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.
Uh-oh. I have to lead a book group discussion today of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You—which I read and reviewed three years ago, and I can’t find my copy of the book! And the library doesn’t have one. I feel so unprepared. But at least I have this:
In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in Everything I Never Told You, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful. I’m hoping my book club members came to different conclusions too. A lively discussion should ensue!
If you’ve read this book, you’ll recall that the story takes place in the 1970s and centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland (modeled on Ng’s home town of Shaker Heights): honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.
But something goes drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” In the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance, a desperate Marilyn finds the dozen diaries she’s given Lydia to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.
As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even in this crisis, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. In my experience the novel skillfully drew me into deeper and deeper waters until I realized the surface was far above. I will be interested to see whether the book group members are comfortable with its lack of a final clarifying answer.
Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers. Ng’s second book, the 2017 Little Fires Everywhere, also delves into family secrets when a custody battle erupts in a “progressive” Cleveland suburb (you-know-where) over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby. It’s an exploration of race, class, and unconscious privilege that also received extravagant praise and is being turned into an eight-episode television series. Less ambiguity in the story here, but also less comfort.
Loving this long lithub article by Francine Prose about the need to write clearly. There’s nothing like absenting yourself from a manuscript draft for a couple of months to reveal all the unintentionally vague, poorly expressed thoughts. Short stories can turn up murky, but a novel—with its larger number of theme, characters, plot strands, and ultimately, purposes—can be downright impenetrable. And getting the words right, making the text clear, as Prose says, “is harder than it looks.”
In some novels, every word seems exactly right, in exactly the right place, like bells change-ringing. It’s something to strive for. In rereading my own work, I come across sentences that are like an impenetrable hedge around a thought (if there is one). I have to stop myself and ask, “what are you saying here?” If there is some kernel in there, it is so masked by syntax and verbiage that even I, who should know what is intended, can barely find it.
Prose excerpts letters from Chekhov to the young Maxim Gorky in which he suggests (advice frequently resurrected now 120 years later) that Gorky dispense with excessive modifiers. “The brain can’t grasp all of this at once,” Chekhov says, “and the art of fiction ought to be immediately, instantaneously graspable.” Simplification was one key to finding my way out of brambly sentences too. And if a whack through the brush and can’t find the kernel, well, that’s why I have a delete key.
The noted editor Harold Evans provides “ten shortcuts to making yourself clear” in his entertaining and helpful book on “why writing well matters.” His book in its entirety is about giving writers the tools to unravel knotty prose.
Prose advises writers to ask themselves, “Would I say this?” She clarifies that she doesn’t mean they should write exactly the way they would speak (listen to conversations on the train and you’ll see why), but that “they avoid, in their writing, anything they would not say out loud to another human being.” In her brand new book, What to Read and Why, she discusses some of her favorite writers and what makes their work enduring, along with an essay specifically “On Clarity.”
Time and a balky memory give me distance from the words I’ve so carefully and at times inartfully put on paper. Assessing whether a sentence or passage is clear requires reading it as if the writer were a stranger to it, Prose believes. As writers, we’re on a quest. She says, “Clarity is not only a literary quality but a spiritual one, involving, as it does, compassion for the reader.”
Simplicity is not the only cure for confusion. Prose cites long and grammatically complex sentences of Virginia Woolf’s that, though they require an attentive reader, are nevertheless clear. Inviting and assuring the reader’s attention means making the subject and the characters interesting, providing sufficient motivation for readers to fix their attention on them. A subject for another time!
The Gift of Fearis a two-decades old book about recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer—whether of a spouse, a girlfriend, or a mass shooting—people say, “We had no idea he’d . . .” This book, like the FBI report released yesterday, says baloney to that. There are signs. People just have to recognize them and accept their validity.
As a crime writer, I hoped those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.
The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement on ways to prevent violence and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the grating “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.
Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying bags up to her apartment. He followed her inside, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.
From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.
Seven Key Survival Signals
Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.
Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!
Walter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”
He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”
Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.
Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”
He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.
Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.
In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.
She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.
When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.
As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.
While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”
Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.
Book publishers, scrambling to find a toehold as the Niagara of new manuscripts cascades over them, have latched onto the concept of “up-lit.” According to Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, novels that offer “decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers” are increasingly garnering publisher and prize committee attention, and more important, the loyalty of readers.
Perhaps it’s a reaction to the long run of dystopian novels or perhaps a reaction to the daily news, but, as HarperCollins terms them, “books that give us hope,” such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cecelia Ahern’s The Marble Collector, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, have shown there’s a strong market for books whose subtext is optimism and empathy. We’re not talking lit-lite here: George Saunders’s Lincoln at the Bardo (2017 Man Booker prize winner) is riddled with human compassion. Though it comes from the dead. Hmm.
Says author Joanna Cannon, “I write about communities, kindness and people coming together because that’s the society I wish for. I write what I’d like to happen.” I would put Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in that same category. Would that there were more people like Count Alexander Rostov, and, hey, why couldn’t I try to emulate him, and hew to a code of unfailing courtesy (even while retaining a bit of private deviousness in service of a higher good)?
We’re not talking Pollyannas, either. Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimageof Harold Fry, in saying that up-lit stories’ characters can confront all the bad things in life—“devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness”—and yet say, “there is still this.” She says, “Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”
To the extent that people read novels for escape and enlightenment, why not escape to a kinder, better world? Why not be inspired to greater empathy rather than snarkiness? The speculative novel Fever, by South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, takes place after an uncontrollable virus kills ninety-five percent of the world’s population. It could have described a society that devolves into anarchy and rapaciousness (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand), and, while there are people in the novel who follow that path, the principal characters envision a better, more equal world and work hard to build it. They face logistical, emotional, and moral struggles, but the fact that their better world can be envisioned at all and collectively pursued is, ultimately, affirmative.
Not having read many of these books, I hope you have and that you’ll leave a comment reporting what you think of them.
Ricardo Fayet, one of the founders of Reedsy (the service that links authors with top-quality expertise in many areas of manuscript development and publication) recently wrote a BookBub post with the enticing title, “12 Common Writing Errors Even Bestselling Authors Make.” Since I’m sure I make them all, I read it carefully.
Fayet based his list on feedback from the developmental editors, copy editors, and proofreaders Reedsy employs, and the items on it fall into three broad categories: narrative problems, creating confusion, and grammar/punctuation. The grammar/punctuation problems are the ones we’d expect, and the sources of confusion can be boiled down to point-of-view problems (sound of gnashing teeth—mine!) and when writers omit relevant information, or more likely, when they include it in draft #1, but lose it somehow in draft #12.
“Show, Don’t Tell” Again
If only someone would show me how to do that and quit telling me! Sure, we know that creating scenes and dialog makes the action of a story more meaningful for readers. Yet this SDT issue keeps coming up. In my writer’s group, “I want to see this in a scene” is practically a mantra.
At the same time, dialog that goes nowhere is deadly; scenes that don’t contribute much are a waste of energy. A pithy summary can move a story forward quickly—say, when we need to close a gap of years or introduce a new setting or character. That’s information that changes the chessboard. It has to be just as relevant and interesting as a scene. A crime novel I read recently gave a two-page information dump, on cue, each time a new character was introduced. Bad enough, but these “back stories” were hackneyed, full of predictable details. Cardboard descriptions of cardboard characters. Better to skip it.
Overdescribing and Overexplaining
Can we show too much? Yes, if we fall prey to overdescribing. No point in having a character “nod her head”; she can just nod. No point in having a character get out of his chair, walk to the window, look out, then turn and say . . . . Let him just “look out the window and say.” Labored locutions are common in first drafts, because we’re visualizing the action of a story and setting it on the page. We need to be attuned to them, though, so we delete them later. We need to trust that readers understand people don’t leave the room without getting out of their chair first (though I can imagine situations where that extra information would be needed). More about overexplaining here.
Showing, not telling and avoiding over-explaining help give a story a strong opening. Elmore Leonard famously advises never to start a story with the weather. Yet a surprising number of books begin with something like “It was a bright, sunny day. Hot for May.” I yawn, unless May is one of the characters. It isn’t weather per se, it’s the banal we need to avoid.
I tend to write a couple of opening paragraphs—like I’m warming up—before getting to the story’s action. My critique group advises me to delete them, and I do. They must have read Chekhov, who said: “My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.” My flaw isn’t exactly lying, it’s more forecasting the direction of a story before even I know what that will be.
Check out this opener from Mick Herron’s MI5 thriller, Slow Horses: “This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses”; and Deon Meyer’s post-apocalyptic adventure tale, Fever: “I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why.” Starters like those make readers keep going.
Regarding Chekhov’s point about endings, we should leave it to “you, dear reader” to form a conclusion. Although I liked Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, the last twenty pages were a sort of rambling essay on the book’s meaning, as best I could figure them out. To me, they were a turn-off and unnecessary. If I didn’t get it after reading 750 pages, I wasn’t going to.
Unbelievable! Please, no
Fayet says Reedsy editors find frequent examples of “unbelievable conflicts.” I wonder sometimes why a protagonist doesn’t just pick up the phone and clear up the whole matter. Though keeping secrets is a common source of story conflict and tension, we need to show (not tell) why doing so is important to this character in this situation. Clichéd actions are as unsatisfactory as clichéd dialog.
Thrillers and family dramas are equally prey to preposterous situations. I suspect this holds true for the romance genre, as well, judging these books by their covers. We can show all we want, but if what we’re showing is unconvincing, our millions of readers are lost.
Guest Post by Rebecca Forster –In the movie, Wag the Dog, the U.S. president’s PR team creates a ‘war’ in Albania to deflect attention away from a brewing scandal. When the mastermind of this plan is asked why he chose Albania, he answered, “Do you know where Albania is?”
But today, magazines and newspapers are rife with travel articles about the country and action/ adventure movies have riffed on the Albanian mafia. I’m not surprised by the interest; I knew it would be only a matter of time. You see, I stumbled on Albania years ago and I will soon be going back for an extensive stay.
My love affair with the country can be explained by the fact that I am a lover of mysteries. The people are at once welcoming but guarded, generous yet clinging to blood feuds over personal infractions. But my affection for Albania is more than that of a traveler; it was fueled by a shared passion for the written word.
From mountain villages that may be no more than a cluster of clan houses to the streets of the large cities, books are everywhere. In the cities brick-and-mortar bookstores stand alongside pop-ups where inventory is laid out. They may run the length of a city block by the river or along the footpaths in a park. An architectural flourish on a building becomes a display shelf where the pages of magazines flutter in the breeze and the covers of books glint in the fading light of day.
Friends Book House
And, in Tirana, there is Friends Book House, a haven for people who write the books.
I found a mention of Friends Book House in the pages of a throwaway visitor’s guide. It said writers were welcome. To reach it I navigated crumbling sidewalks, dashed through traffic that stop for no one, and wound my way through narrow alleys.
At first glance it appeared to be like a thousand other Albanian coffee shops, until I was ushered to a lower level and through a glass door into a large room decorated in red and black, the colors of the Albanian flag. Upholstered banquettes, large tables, and low-slung couches hugged the walls. Wine bottles, brass hookahs, and paintings decorated the room. There were pictures of authors and diplomats who had come to this place to discuss their writings. Classical music played softly. There were books everywhere. I slid into a booth, opened my computer and began to work.
In the month I lived in Tirana, the owner, Lati, and the baristas became my friends. My tea was always waiting. The quiet room was always welcoming. Friends Book House was, quite simply, inspiring, and it was there I began to write Eyewitness, the fourth book in The Witness Series. It is a novel about a clash between ancient law and modern justice. I have Albania to thank for the inspiration.
I am going back to Albania soon. Lati knows I’m coming. I will sit in the red room and write. For three weeks I will be in a writer’s heaven created by a man who admires writers in a country that loves books. I know how lucky I am to have found Friends Book House because every writer needs a special room. Sometimes it is steps away and sometimes you find it half-way around the world.
Rebecca and Lati at “her” table in the Friends Book House
Rebecca Forster is a USA Today & Amazon best-selling author of the Witness Series, the Finn O’Brien Thrillers, and more. Her latest in the Finn O’Brien series (just in time for St. Patrick’s Day) is Secret Relations.
Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?
In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.
Could this advice help him write a better story?
The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:
There have to be four speaking characters
26% of the text has to be dialog
From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.
Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.
What did the algorithm “think” of his story?
Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”
I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?
Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”
Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!