- by Rebecca York
Sometimes I ask myself, “Am I crazy?” There are a lot reasons why I might make that inquiry. This week, as I sit in a NY hotel room writing a blog entry, I’m wondering why I’m going to two conferences in July. The simple answer is that both International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America are this month. And I couldn’t choose between them.
I’ve been a selling novelist for more than 30 years. Although I started writing romance, I quickly switched to romantic suspense, because I wanted to include action and adventure along with the relationship. Now my genre of choice is paranormal romantic suspense where a lot of my heroes are werewolves or other shape-shifters. Which means that I never quite fit into any conference. At the romance conferences, I’m too much in the suspense camp. In the mystery conferences, I’m seen as a romance writer.
At Thrillerfest this year, they put me on the “What’s Love Got to Do with It” panel with Anna DeStefano, Jennifer St. Giles, Erica Spindler, and others. You could call it the romance ghetto, although a lot of people came up to me later and said how glad they were they’d attended.
For the past few years, Thrillerfest has been in NY and will be there for the next few years. That means they can easily tap into professionals from the publishing industry.
At the opening cocktail party, F. Paul Wilson told me the attendance is up 30 percent from last year. Why, when we’re still in a recession? He said that a lot of people see this as the conference that has “everything.” There are intensive craft sessions at Craftfest. Agentfest gives aspiring writers a chance to meet and pitch to agents. Then there’s Thrillerfest itself where big-name writers like Harlan Coben, Steve Berry, Katherine Neville, and David Morrell, lesser-knowns like me, plus editors and other industry professionals speak on topics of interest. Unlike at RWA, you only have to pay for what you attend. The parts are separate, even the banquet.
RWA is where I get to see a lot of the writing friends who don’t live near me. But after going to their conferences for the past twenty-five years, I attend very few of the sessions.
It’s different at Thrillerfest, where the focus is on suspense instead of romance, and I could sit in on a lot of sessions given by suspense authors I read and admire. This year, Ken Follett was the Thrillermaster, honored for his long career as a suspense writer. He’s one of my favorite novelists. In fact, when I read his KEY TO REBECCA years ago, my reaction was, “That’s the kind of book I want to write.”
So I was particularly happy to listen to his writing tips. Follett’s had a very broad career. Unlike most of us, who end up in a narrow box, he’s been able to write both modern thrillers, World War II thrillers, and historical novels. One thing I’ve noticed about him over the years is that he’s not afraid of writing love scenes. He says a love scene is more interesting and dramatic if participants are shy, nervous, inexperienced. Yes. I totally agree.
Follett says you must add details and draw out fight scenes–and do the same thing with love scenes. He believes that a fight should be the climax of a larger conflict. Readers must know and like or hate combatants to be invested in the action. As he spoke, I was thinking about some of his books. In WORLD WITHOUT END, we had to wait a long time for Sir Ralph to get what he deserved. And then there’s Wolf in The KEY TO REBECCA. It looks like he’s going to win–until the very end. Follett says that research helps make his books more detailed and realistic and that ninety-nine percent of his research can come from books. But he also has experts in the field go over his writing and tell him if he’s gotten anything wrong.
Before he starts writing, Follett creates a detailed outline. Then he writes a first draft and has other people, including his agent, Al Zuckerman, read it and comment. Like all authors, he hates criticism. But he listens to it because it makes his books better. He says he pays attention to anything that stops a reader, even when they might not understand what’s really wrong. If someone tells him a scene is too long and boring, it might be that it’s really too short and lacks enough detail to engage the reader. He’s always ready to rethink what he’s written. The hero of THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE was originally a man. Changing the “hero” to a woman made the book much stronger.
More great advice from Follett: Don’t write the scene if nothing dramatic is going to happen. If you’re just dealing with routine stuff, summarize it and get it over quickly. He also says that if you’re going to have a big cast of characters, don’t introduce them all at once because the reader won’t remember them. Give them each an introductory chapter.
I asked Follett why he returns to World War II so often in his books. He says it’s the greatest drama in history, and we see it as war between good and evil.
Another writer I wanted to hear was Harlan Coben. It was fascinating to realize how different he is from Follett. If you read Coben, you know he’s the master of twists and turns in the plot. In his Thrillerfest session, he said, “I never met a twist I didn’t like.” Yet he doesn’t work from an outline. He just starts writing and sees where it’s going to go. He says that usually he knows the outline, but sometimes, as with THE WOODS, he doesn’t.
Coben says that it’s dangerous when you concentrate too much on character rather than developing the story. And when I read him, I’m always thinking that he’s a master of slipping in character details as I read a scene that’s moving fast.
Unlike Coben, I feel much more comfortable working from an outline. But we do share some work methods in common. We both start each work day editing what we wrote the day before. He says he stops after about seventy-five pages and edits what he’s written. I also stop periodically and edit, particularly if I want to check up on character consistency.
Amazingly, Coben says he does very little research. He just makes it up. Obviously, it works for him.
Coben has one last piece of advice. “Just write. Don’t let anything stop you–especially yourself.”