Writing Advice Sucks #1: The mechanics of thrillers, writing to trends, and free books


I hit the publishing hat-trick with my newest book, The Warehouse. Nice deal with Crown, sold to publishers in more than a dozen countries so far, and optioned for film by Ron Howard. One of the funny/odd/interesting things about this is: how other people have responded.

Besides the general well-wishes, one writer called dibs on getting a blurb when his next book is ready (which is baller, so I said yes). I’ve had people walking on eggshells like I’m suddenly going to forget who my friends are (I won’t!). I’ve had at least one person quiz me on how the deal went down, and seemed so stunned that, by the end of the conversation, I felt a little bummed out (because it sounded like: “how did you manage to do this?”).

But one question I’ve gotten a couple of times now is: did you write something you were passionate about, or did you write to a trend?

And the more I think about it, the more I want to answer that. Because it’s like 95 percent no and five percent yes. And even that five is a little wonky. 

Let’s talk about the bigger part first: The Warehouse is a book about how the American worker is being turned into a disposable commodity. For reasons that would be too much of a spoiler to discuss, some things happen in this book that I thought might make it unpublishable. It was a risk, but it’s a story I felt strongly about. 

In fact, there’s a twist toward the end I figured, if the book were picked up by a publisher, would be the first thing they would ask me to cut. It was cited by many readers as one of their favorite parts.

I’m not sure writing to a trend is the best way to go? There’s a certain trend in publishing right now, and I know some people who are trying to start a new company to meet it, and it doesn’t seem to be going well. I think that’s for two reasons. One, you can’t force it. Two, publishing has a long tail—by the time you’re done, before you go on sub even, that trend might be over.

Plus (and this is me, Rob, speaking as myself, and not on behalf of anyone) I don’t totally understand why someone would write strictly to a trend? If there’s a current hot trend (let’s say… wombats) and you have a great idea for an entirely new and different kind of wombat book, and it’s something that speaks to your heart and soul, then fuck yeah, more power to you. You do wombats.

But if you’re going to write a wombat book because you think that’s your ticket to fame and glory… why are you doing this again, exactly?

We all want to be successful, but there’s got to be some love of the game in there too, right?  

Which brings us to the five percent.

I like to set myself challenges. And the challenge for The Warehouse was: could I write an “issues” book wrapped in the language of a thriller? Kind of like how you sneak broccoli into a kid’s mac-and-cheese. They get their vitamins and they don’t even know it!

I’ve always been a strong believer in the ability of story to seduce. I could write a long-ass non-fiction book about why I think the American economy sucks, or, I could write a fun but dark thriller that lets a reader digest that information without feeling like they’re being lectured at.

For the past couple of years I’ve been studying thrillers. Basically any book that makes the ‘best of summer’ or ‘best of the year’ list in the crime and mystery categories. I wanted to learn the mechanics. Lee Child or Michael Connelly or Jeffery Deaver or James Patterson write fiction that readers want to read. Even if they’re not your cuppa, you can’t deny they know their shit.

Because there’s something they get I’m not sure writers always think about: how this is not about you.

We all want to be true to ourselves. We all want to be artistes. But writing is a two-way street. We’re writing for a reader. And we have to find that space between satisfying what it is we want to say, and meeting their expectations.

What are their expectations? Who the fuck knows! Then it’d be easy. But there’s a reason certain things happen in stories over and over again. You could call them tropes, but you could also think of them as reader comfort zones. And they are not inherently bad.

I’m not saying you should take it easy on the reader. I’m not saying you should compromise your story and make it all sunshine and gumdrops. But you have to ask why the person who picked up the book is reading it in the first place.

I think one of the things that helped me with The Warehouse was: this isn’t about you (as in, me).

I mean, it is about me, because everything I write is about me. But it’s not about me. It’s about the person who picks it up. It’s about what I want them to get out of it, which, when you boil it down, is enjoyment and entertainment.

Point of all this is, I didn’t write to a trend in the sense of trying to replicate something like “domestic suspense featuring unreliable female narrator.” Rather, I looked at the trends and tried to break down the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of why they were trending.

And when I mean nuts-and-bolts, I mean exactly that. I’m less interested in big-picture stuff (you have to feel your prose deeply in your heart) and more interested in stuff I can stock in my toolbox, and wield when the job calls for it.

Here’s some of what I added to my toolbox:

  • One of the best bits of advice I got was from James Patterson (I co-wrote a Bookshot, Scott Free, with him). At one point in the book, one character charges into another and I compared it to getting hit in the gut with a cannonball. Patterson’s note was that no one knows what it feels like to get hit with a cannonball—you have to use stuff a reader will understand.
  • Not specifically from Patterson, though he’s known for it, and something I’ve come to find as valuable: short chapters. My Ash McKenna books have longish chapters with a lot of section breaks. The Warehouse has no section breaks, and it has some long chapters, but it has some short ones, too. Short chapters are a good way to keep a reader barreling forward, and to give them a sense of accomplishment.
  • This is an easy one but it bears stating: chapters really should end on a very, very strong hook. Think about your reader, and what’s going to make them have to read the next chapter. Not want to. Have to.
  • I got this from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, which is about screenwriting, but it’s a good character note, because once you notice it you see it everywhere: make your characters likable, even if they’re not. The three characters in The Warehouse do things that turn a reader against them. I needed them to do things that turn the reader in their favor, too. I know it’s “fun” and “real” to write characters who are bastards, but if your character is too much of a bastard, the reader isn’t going to give a fuck about them. Which is the title lesson of Snyder’s book: have them save a cat. Even a small moment of kindness will put them in the reader’s favor.
  • Ask questions of your reader. Lee Child says it better than me. Seriously, read this.
  • And finally, everything in service of plot. Which was a tough line to walk on The Warehouse because there are a lot of “interlude” chapters that are essentially manuals or company-wide notifications or scripted videos. One character narrates almost entirely through blog posts. So while it feels like I’m spending a lot of time on world-building (and I am) each one of those bits also speaks toward something important.

To dig down into that last point a little more: everyone in The Warehouse wears a smart watch. So one chapter is a rundown on the watch features. The watches are important and the reader needs to understand how they work. It’s in service to the plot.

There were plenty of other “interlude” chapters I considered and never followed through with, because they were strictly world-building. They would have been kind of cool, but would have bogged down the forward momentum of the story.

That’s so important. Momentum. Not leading a reader through the story. Grabbing them by the shirt collar and dragging them.

Those are some of the ways to build momentum. There are more. Many more! But I’m going to hold off on that for now. Because I’ve been thinking a lot about craft lately. I’ll be a student until the day I die, and right now is a good time to re-evaluate where I am, and where I’m going. I’m looking toward the next book, and some other projects, and setting myself some new challenges.

And my writing toolkit looks a bit like my tool bench down in the basement. Everything is scattered. Nothing is in its place. I can find what I need if I look long enough, but wouldn’t it be nice to put everything in order?

So, expect more of these. I’ve got a whole bunch of topics I’d like to cover. All of it couched in a very important fact: writing advice is mostly bullshit!

For example, some people will tell you that you need to write every day, and it’s the only way to be successful.

Some people can’t. You might have two jobs, or a sick relative, or you just don’t want to, and that’s okay! I don’t write every day and I’m doing all right.

But it’s lame to think someone might see that and say, “well I can’t write every day so clearly I can’t be a writer.”

Writing advice is like anything else: take what works for you. Trash what doesn’t. You will trash a lot. A big part of this process is finding what works for you. I’m still finding what works for me.

So I’m going to write a series of craft essays and call it Writing Advice Sucks, until I think of a better name, or decide I actually like this one. 

To this end, I’m reformatting my newsletter. I think I’ve sent out five or so since New Yorked came out. But I’d like to use it more, for book recommendations, and updates on the craft stuff, and then every now and again, when I want you to buy a thing I did so I can keep feeding my family.

Expect to see two or so newsletters a month. I don’t want to drown you. But I’ll be recommending good craft books, or just books that I’m reading and enjoying. Plus who knows, maybe I’ll give some shit away.

Like, how about this: Sign up for my newsletter right now and I’ll select two people at random to get hardcover copies of The Woman from Prague. Publishers Weekly called it one of the best books of summer 2017. I’ll pull the names on Friday. US only.

Sign up here. Oh and hey, in other news Potter’s Field got picked as one of the best books of the summer by the Star Tribune! Pre-order it at this link!

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