Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Guest Post by Gary Ponzo

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Brandilyn Collins talking about dialog subtext here:

You can read Katherine Sears talking about Booktrope:

You can read Richard Denoncourt talking about cover art here: 

You can read Ann Voss Peterson talking about pacing here:

You can read Nick Spill talking about his path to publication here:

You can read Constance Phillips and Jenna Rutland and Joe Konrath talking about their path to publication here:

You can read Ian Kezsbom talking about Fuzzbomb Publishing here:

Now here's Gary Ponzo...

How I Learned to Write a Thriller

I generally despise "How-To" blog posts.  I mean if you know how to pick stocks, then do it and become a millionaire and leave us alone.  If you can teach us how to write a bestselling book, then why aren't you a bestselling author?  So I pursue this topic with an agenda.  I'm attempting to assist writers who might have the ability to become successful thriller writers, but are getting in their own way from that accomplishment.  Mind you, each writer has a different opinion of what successful means.  To many authors developing a core group of a couple of hundred loyal readers is their goal, and a worthy one at that.  Hopefully this will offer some support.

The first time I heard someone explain how to write a thriller I was at a writers conference and there was a midlist author explaining her road to publication.  As a newbie author I was intrigued with the topic.  When she got to the part where she described her ability to conjure up the courage to ask her roommate to look at her manuscript, I was on the edge of my seat.  Until she mentioned that her roommate was an agent with the Curtis Brown Literary Agency.  That's when I threw up in my mouth and left the room.  The title of the seminar should have been, "How to find a literary agent roommate."

My experience is a little more grounded.  I began my writing career with short stories.  It took a while to get noticed, but after three years I had five stories published in literary magazines, two of which were nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.  It was this form of acceptance which gave me the confidence to move on to novels. 

I personally enjoy reading action thrillers.  Something to keep me intrigued while the tension seemed to mount with each passing page.  I became a fan of Nelson Demille, the late Vince Flynn, and Elmore Leonard, among others.  After a while I noticed a pattern among these writers.  They kept the pages turning with minimal exposition.  There's a famous quote by Elmore Leonard: "Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip."  This is exactly where I'm taking this post.

Readers have a wide variety of tastes.  The important aspect to growing your core is to tap into the exact taste your readers are looking for.  This is It's especially important when describing your book as well.
Here's why this is important-- If you took a date to a white tablecloth restaurant to celebrate a special occasion and found nothing but hot dogs and hamburgers on the menu, you would be disappointed.  Mind you, these might be the finest hot dogs on the planet, but that's not what you were expecting.  Well, readers have tastes too.  If you're a romance writer and you're skipping the description of the protagonist's well-built body, then you're missing the important part of the journey for the reader.  The opposite goes for thriller writers.  Does anyone know what Jack Reacher looks like?  Not really.  All we know is that he's big.  That's about it.  And his size is important to the overall theme of the storyline.  But for the most part thriller readers want the action.  They want tension.  They want speed. 

If you're a thriller writer and you're spending a couple of pages describing a field of daisies blowing gently in the afternoon breeze, their stems better be attached to sticks of dynamite.  

I've heard a rather famous author once comment very disparaging about a well-known thriller writer who left a lot of white space on the page.  As if this was beneath a good writer to use dialogue to express the character's motives.

Here are my thoughts about short paragraphs and tiny chapters.  If a writer uses less words on the page to move the story along then those words—




Compression is a valuable art form in this genre.  The temptation to describe the protagonist's eye color as she walks in front of a mirror must be resisted.  This doesn't mean you can't stretch out scenes for pages to describe an incoming plane with a terrorist prisoner on board the way Nelson Demille did with the opening scene to The Lion's Game.  That scene was so tense I couldn't get through it fast enough.  By the way, that was a 900 page book and it was too short.

The final thing I'd like to say about writing thrillers is simple:  Start with the action up front.  I've read so many thrillers where the author feels it necessary to give you a laundry list of the protagonist's past history so the reader will care about him or her.  Believe me, if the protagonist is hanging upside down from the wing of a plane, all you need to do is mention that he's thinking about his daughter becoming an orphan and the reader is hooked.  We care.  Now get him out of there so we can flip those pages faster.

Let me give you an example of how the importance of first lines have escalated over the past few years, especially for an Indie author who doesn't have the luxury of a brand name to keep the readers getting through a slow first chapter.

My first thriller, A Touch of Deceit begins with the line: There was a time when Nick Bracco would walk down Gold Street late at night and young vandals would scatter.  Not bad for a start, but still not the best.  That was three years ago.  I did a much better job, however, with the sequel, A Touch of Revenge.  It begins: The bullet left the sniper's rife at 3,000 feet per second.  Much better, huh?  Especially when that bullet is headed directly at Nick Bracco.  My latest thriller, A Touch Of Malice, begins: The pit viper slithered up the side of the tree and paused to glare at Trent Merrick with sinister eyes.  I'll bet that'll get you to read the next sentence.

And really that's what this entire post is about—start fast, and keep the action up with minimal need to describe the scenery at length unless that scenery is going to have some value to the storyline.  That sunset over the mountain better have the glint of a metal flashing or I'm snoozing through it.

How did I learn these traits?  From the masters, Vince Flynn, Daniel Silva and Tess Gerritsen.  Read them. Study them.  Then create your own world using their techniques.  I promise it will be a much faster trip.  And a much more rewarding one as well.

FYI:  I owe much of my success to my ex-literary agent Robert Brown (a prince) who pushed and shoved me into becoming an Indie author and Joe Konrath who opened up his financial books, allowing us to peek inside and see just how far hard work can take you.  Almost a hundred thousand sold copies of my Nick Bracco series later I am forever grateful to those two.   

Joe sez: Congrats on your success, Gary. 

First lines are so important they often are responsible for a reader buying the book, or not buying it. So many ebook readers download samples, and if you don't hook them immediately, they don't buy.

To that effect, remember that your front matter is hugely important. This is how it should go:

1. Cover art.
2. Title page.
3. Back jacket copy. (your book description, as used on your book's Amazon page. This is because people buy or sample ebooks and forget what they are. Remind them at the front of your ebook. 
4. Introduction (if any)
5. Table of contents.
5. Novel.
6.  Bibliography.
7. Back jacket copy from other books you've written. (Two or three. Don't use excerpts--readers don't like them.)
8. Copyright page.

And speaking of first lines, here are a few of mine.

"It would be so easy to kill you while you sleep." - BLOODY MARY

No security cameras this time, but he still has to be careful. - DIRTY MARTINI

At my fiance's funeral I got a phone call form the woman who killed him. - CHERRY BOMB

"We need to hide somewhere, plan out next move," Hammett said. "He'll be looking for us." - THREE

"I found the head." - THE LIST

This guy isn't a killer, Dalton thinks. He's a butcher. - SHAKEN

Exactly nine hours and eleven minutes before I was charged with the complete destruction of Boise, Idaho, and the murders of the four hundred sixty-two thousand and nine people living there, I was mowing my roof and collecting the clippings like a good little taxpayer when I noticed a raccoon hiding in one of my hemp plants. - TIMECASTER

What are some of your first lines?


Joshua James said...

Not going to post a first line, but want to add that David Morrell's book on writing action thrillers is a fantastic, insightful read... he also goes into narrative pov, too, which is very important...

Nick Stephenson said...

nice first lines, guys.. Here's one of mine:

"A human body plummeting from a cruising altitude of thirty-five thousand feet takes three minutes to hit the ground." Departed: A Leopold Blake Thriller.

Joshua James said...

David's book is called THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, btw, I highly recommend it.

Nick Stephenson said...

apologies for the double post, but I just noticed something:

JOE - all your books have samples at the end... is this not working for you any more?

Kriley said...

The voices were back, but they were different this time; they were getting closer - Dark Genesis (only $0.99 on Kindle)

“Damn that kid,” I muttered under my breath; not that he’d really understand what I was saying. - 23 Hours (available later this month)

The knife was so sharp I barely felt the first cut. - After The End (WIP)

Merrill Heath said...

Be careful how you lay out your book so that something from the actual novel is available in the sample. I downloaded the sample from B&N for Blue Eyed Devil, the new book in the Virgil Cole series. For those of you who don't know about this series, these are westerns written by Robert B. Parker.

At any rate, here's what I got in the sample -- title page, table of contents, list of novels by RBP, title page (again), copyright page, end of sample.

First line of Ill Wind: At ten o’clock one rainy April morning of 1955 an ambulance entered the public square of Morgan, Alabama, with its siren going.

Gary Ponzo said...

I'll have to get that David Morrell book, Joshua. Thanks.

Nice first lines, Nick and Kevin. I especially like the last one of yours, Kevin.

w. adam mandelbaum said...

West Germany 1973
"Steele looked out the train window to avoid the glance of the extremely fat German woman seated across from him."
--DETACHMENT ECHO-Cold War Coverup
now on Kindle for $2.99

Joe Flynn said...

The fight under the bridge at the foot of the Eiffel Tower turned deadly when the Frenchman kicked the urn out of the American's grasp. — "The Hangman's Companion," the second Jim McGill novel

Robert Bidinotto said...

"Today she would finally nail the bastard." -- "HUNTER," my first Dylan Hunter thriller

Gary Ponzo said...

Very nice, Adam, Joe and Robert.

Robert, you say your first Dylan Hunter thriller like the second is on it's way. Quit teasing us and bring it.

JA Konrath said...

all your books have samples at the end... is this not working for you any more?

Many still do. I'm phasing them out.

John DuMond said...

Favorite first lines:

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.

-FIREBREAK, by Richard Stark

I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down.

-GUN MONKEYS, by Victor Gischler

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Nice post Gary!

Favorite first line is CH 1 of Savages by Don Winslow

"Fuck you."

Merrill Heath said...

If I'd killed him the day I met him I'd be out of prison now.

That was the first line in a book that I think was written by Janet Evanovich, but I'm not sure. I'm too lazy to look it up.

Melody said...

My first line: "I spent seven months on the run just to turn myself in."

This whole post is full of excellent advice. It was when I stopped caring about the details and started caring about how to make it impossible NOT to turn the page that I actually wrote a book worth reading.

Nancy Beck said...

@Sean Patrick Reardon,

Thanks for the laugh - I really needed it today. I looked up that book on Amazon (not that I doubted you, but I wanted my eyeballs to actually see it), and sure enough, those 2 words are the entire first chapter, lol. :-)

Brian Drake said...

"I want you to go down the hall and kill that man," she said. The Rogue Gentleman by Brian Drake.

WayneThomasBatson said...

"In a hole in a ground, there lived a Hobbit." -Tolkien (duh)

"Like silent, hungry sharks that swim in the depths of the sea, the German submarines arrived in the middle of the night." -Taylor's "The Cay"

"Marley was dead to begin with." -Dickens.

Some of my fave first lines. So agree with you Gary: first lines matter a TON.

Unknown said...

"You want me to frame myself for murder?" -- from the thriller, Frame-Up, by Eric Christopherson & Brad Schoenfeld

Unknown said...

In truth Gary I think you've described a rather cookie cutter approach to writing thrillers. There are lots of different kinds of successful thrillers, and yes, you can have little white space on the page, and stop to describe the color of people's eyes, and open with something less than riveting on the first page or in the first line--if you've got the chops!

"When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them." -- first sentence from Mystic River by Dennis Lehane.

"I first met Frank Bellarosa on a sunny Saturday in April at Hicks' Nursery, an establishment that has catered to the local gentry for over a hundred years." -- first sentence from The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille.

Merrill Heath said...

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.

Elmore Leonard: Glitz

Rob Cornell said...

Awesome post. I'll give a couple first lines from the series I just wrapped up.

Gabriel sips from the ornate cup, the familiar taste of blood awakening his taste buds. -- DARKER THINGS (The Lockman Chronicles #1)

Hoyt Owens was trying to slip his Valentine into Shanna’s purse without her seeing when the monster scream echoed down the main hall of the hospital floor. -- DARKEST HOUR (The Lockman Chronicles #4)

These are from the first in the series and the last in the series. :)

Gary Ponzo said...

Eric, no doubt there's more than one way to open a book and this is certainly not the only template available. I guess my premise is that an unknown author doesn't have the leeway that a well-known author has when it comes to openings. Nelson Demille and Dennis Lehane could recite ordinary prose for pages and the reader will follow them because of their past successes. Gary Ponzo, however, better grab you early otherwise you're checking out.

Also, I always hesitate to post a how-to blog post because the reality is--you should be wary of anything an author states because writing is an art and unlike math there are hundreds of answers to the same equation. I'm no expert, I promise. I'm just spouting opinions. There's a solid chance I'm wrong about some or all of this.

Lois Breedlove said...

“I came to Alaska because I have always wanted to see the state and because it will be an easy place to die. Deciding to die is simple, carrying it out isn't.”

Excerpt From: Breedlove, L.J. “Everybody Lies.”

as a journalist, I was taught that the first line -- the lead -- was the most mportant sentence, the hook. Most reporters, me included, spend as much time on the lead as the rest of the story. With a novel, obviously I don't spend THAT mich time on the first sentence, but I do go back to the opening page a lot. And BTW, most reporters write the final version of their lead last.

. “The beeper went off at the absolute worst time.
"Damn," said Andrew Pettygood, the man I was involved with at the moment. I wasn't pleased either.”

Excerpt From: Breedlove, L.J. “Sins of Omission.”

Anonymous said...

"In five years, the penis will be obsolete." John Varley, STEEL BEACH

Alistair McIntyre said...

I admit that I didn't realize the importance of knowing what a specific genre audience looks for in a story. When I tried my hand at fantasy, my proofreaders all informed me that the physical character descriptions were lacking, by which they meant, nonexistent. In adventure or thrillers, I don't take the time to describe the color of everyone's shoelaces, but the fantasy crowd want to build a more detailed image, so I had to rewrite that story to include such character description. One of the blessings of self-publishing: Fixing crap.

Live and learn.

Paul Draker said...

“Gordon said he saw her this time, through the gap under the crossbeam. But she crawled away again.”

“You called a U.S. Senator an ass-clown, Trevor. To his face.”

Like hyenas slinking after a faltering zebra, the five Zetitas followed me down TorreĆ³n Viejo’s empty barrio streets.

Darin Calhoun said...

Sorry, but I thought I should point this out: "At my fiance's funeral I got a phone call form(from) the woman who killed him. - CHERRY BOMB"

Otherwise, it's a great post.

Gary Jonas said...

Good advice for those of us who aren't well-known (yet). Thanks, Gary.

A few of the opening lines from my novels:

You ever have one of those days where dead people just won't leave you alone? --ACHERON HIGHWAY

In the moments before his execution, Stephen Noble thought only of his children. --DRAGON GATE (coming soon)

From my short fiction, my favorite is still:

Whenever I doubt that I should be killing people, I take a job working with the public. --"Death Threat for a Hitman"

Peter Spenser said...

“The great fish moved silently through the night water…” —Jaws by Peter Benchley

Tori Minard said...

Hi, Joe. Normally I lurk here, but I'm commenting because I'm curious about what you said about readers disliking excerpts. What makes you say that? I'd never heard that before. If they turn people off, I'll have to go back through my stuff and take out all the excerpts pronto. ;)

Tori Minard

bettye griffin said...

"The only thing she planned to serve was what could fit on his plate." from Accidentally Yours

Jill James said...

I love reading first lines. It is a peek in the window to see if anyone is home that I would like to visit.

Unknown said...

"There have got to be nicer places to be than in the freezing sea off the coast of a northern Scottish fishing village, with your petrified dog on your back, surrounded by blood thirsty zombies, having seen your only child be kidnapped by your government, leaving you for dead, having just run out of ammo."

Jude Hardin said...

It had been twenty years since I'd picked up a hitchhiker, so naturally I chose the one carrying a rattlesnake in a coffee can.

Kriley said...

@Gary - Thanks for starting such a great thread. There are a ton of awesome first lines here.

Anonymous said...

Gary, Dennis Lehane wasn't such a big shot when he wrote that opening line of Mystic River - but that one sort of sent him on his way!

I don't write "thrillers" per se, but all novels have to open strong.

In my considerable experience, a drug dealer is more likely to die a violent death than get hit by a bus. - LAW & DISORDER (coming soon)

John Falch said...

"I was sitting naked on my carabao, thinking about how to get Pinky del Rosario to marry me, when World War Two came to us."

The Yellow Bar

adan said...

"No sense of early winter’s cold, frosting the glass outside, touched her." -

First line, from my short story, "Eiffel Tower Pose on Family Yoga Day" -

glad i made it back to your guest post series, and "very" glad you're posting the links to previous articles, have sent several to kindle for later leisurely enjoyment ;-)

thanks so much, best wishes :-)

Stan R. Mitchell said...

Wow! There have been some great first lines on here! Looks like lots of good stuff I need to track down and read.

Here are mine:

"Allen Green, a seasoned reporter of thirty years, walked into the bar that night believing that locating the man he had tracked for months would solve all of his problems, and it was hard to disagree." -- Sold Out

"My life took a turn for the worse the night a boy named Joe burst through the door's of the Marshal's office in Belleville." -- Little Man, and the Dixon County War

January 23, 1945
"The soldiers on the hill were spent, but they were now on German soil and that counted for something." -- Soldier On

M.F. Soriano said...

"He was an old man, most likely in his seventies, with his wispy hair splayed out on the silk pillowcase, and his dead eyes wide open." -THE ELECTROLIVE MURDERS

Jo-Ann S said...

"It is no coincidence that In no known language does the phrase'as pretty as an airport' exist." The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams.
Except then he ruins it by explaining at length just how ugly airports are.

Andreas Christensen said...

"A thousand ships rose through the clouds as Lifebringer's day came to an end" Aurora, sequel to Exodus (coming this September).

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great stuff, Gary. I'm all about moving the story along. It should feel like an episode of 24.

Here's my favorite first line:

"Congressman Zimmer knew he was in deep shit." - Council of Patriots