Thursday, July 07, 2011

"Forget Your Weaknesses; Attack Your Strengths" a Thrillerfest workshop with Mark Tavani

One of the things I value about conferences like Thrillerfest, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime and Malice Domestic is the chance to hear editors and writers talk about craft.  I'm not a writer.  I'm sure as heck not a novelist. I'm a reader.  Yet, I have to talk to writers about writing as part of my job.  I go to these panels to pick up tricks of the trade. I feel a bit like a spy!

This is the second day of Thrillerfest and I adore the Grand Hyatt Bar, so this morning  I was right there in the front row, brighteyed and bushytailed hungover and squinty eyed in the back of the room for Ballantine editor Mark Tavani's talk about thrillers.

He started with a list of ways that thrillers can be driven. 

Here's the list:

It can be high or low but most thrillers have a succinctly explainable concept.  Mark used JURASSIC PARK as an example of a concept driven thriller:  A scientist clones dinosaurs and the experiment goes terribly awry.  When you're finished reading the book, what you want to talk about is the concept of the book: the very cool idea of cloning dinosaurs.  The book has other elements but the "calling card" is the concept.

2. PLOT.
It can be the continuous twists as in TELL NO ONE by Harlan Coben, or it can be the ending  as in PRIMAL FEAR by William Diehl but when what happens is the "real fun" of the book, that's a plot driven thriller.

It can be the beautiful prose of books like NIGHT SOLDIERS by Alan Furst ("that man can really write!") or brutal prose like that of Charlie Huston in CAUGHT STEALING -- when it's the writing you talk about,  that's when prose is the strongest point of a novel.

4. CHARACTER: When the people you meet are why you like the book. They can be the good guy like the Reacher novels by Lee Child, or the villain as in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS but when you want to talk about the characters, that's when CHARACTER is one of the novel's strengths.

5. SUSPENSE (or tension) 
FAITHFUL SPY by Alex Berenson has an immediate ticking clock that lets the reader know something must happen soon.  Almost anything by Stephen King will be masterful suspense; one of his best is MISERY.  This can also be thought of as "page-turning."

How much the reader gets attached to the characters and their ordeal.  A great example of a novel with intense emotional impact is MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane.

A classic example of a book published at just the right moment in time was THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.  It had information that wasn't available to the everyday reader and came out at a time when the tensions with the Soviet Union were ratcheting up. Historical novels can also have relevance: history is key to the story in THE DANTE CLUB by Matthew Pearl.

Does the reader believe the story can happen?  John LeCarre's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY made us all believe in the world of spies.  (Mark didn't mention THE WIRE but that's always my example when I talk about fiction feeling very very real)

Mark used this list to help us decide what the strengths of a novel are. There can be more than one (he used GORKY PARK as an example and gave it 10 out of 10 in each category except plot and emotional impact)  Knowing what a novel's strengths are helps an agent talk about it to an editor. It helps the author know what s/he's good at.  And you don't have to be good in all things.  A high concept novel may not have great prose. It might not have much plot (JAWS doesn't have much plot but oh boy does it have suspense!)

This was a terrific presentation; the only drawback was it wasn't long enough. Just about the time I'd finished feverishly writing notes, it was over.


Katt said...

thank you a hundred times over for taking those feverish (and hungover) notes.

I'm printing this up to post on my "board of important notes".

Already thinking about how I would score my ms and from that ... the affect on my current hairball. The one titled "Synopsis".

Anonymous said...

As a thriller writer, I want to thank you for getting drunk...err, I mean, taking notes for me. This was FANTASTIC!

I would have given my left (non-writing) arm to be at Thrillerfest this year.

Mark my words. I'm there next year.

jesse said...

That's a damn good list; it can apply to more than just thrillers. I thank you for working through the hangover, for us. Papa would be proud.

Joyce Tremel said...

Thanks for taking notes--especially while nursing a hangover. This is a fantastic list. Like Jesse said above, it's helpful for other genres, too.

Word verification: barringe. It must apply to you somehow. After all, it has the word "bar" in it.

Melinda said...

Thanks for taking notes! I really wanted to be there, but at least I can live vicariously through you!

Laila Knight said...

This is great, makes me wish I wrote thrillers. It's true that every book has it's own strength. This is a good guideline to refer to for any genre. I guess my characters would be my strength. Thanks for sharing.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

This is one of the most useful blog posts I've read in a long, long time...thanks, Janet!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Thanks for the list! It definitely applies, as others have said, to more than thrillers, and it's always helpful to have a checklist of elements to make sure you're meeting.

Terri Coop said...

Best bit of awesome-saucery I've read in a long time. That's it, time to start saving my pennies for next year's T-Fest.

As a huge fan of thrillers and a humble writer of same, I add one more to the list:

RESOLUTION - The primary plotlines are always resolved. No hanging "and then a butterfly flapped its wings and it rained in the desert" type of ending.

Now, as for the post conference festivities that are probably starting to gear up just about . . . now . . . just remember, "Let's be careful out there."

Thanks again! Terri

Steve Stubbs said...

Let me add a few words of praise to what the others have said. This is a wonderful post and many thanks for writing it. I have been studying the very things you wrote about and am really blown away by what you wrote. It's better than anything else I was able to find on the net. You also make me jealous. I was going to ThrillerFest, but when I turned my piggy bank upside down, nothing fell out. The $700+ tuition was a wee mite steep for me this year, but I may be there next year. Besides, I miss New York.

Enjoy the rest of the week and do keep us posted please.

Olga Walker said...

Hi there

Thank you for sharing in an easy to read format really useful inforamtion.

Olga from

Stephanie Evans said...

Add S.J. Bolton to the "suspense" list. The woman is a genius. I've been working to understand her magic, and maybe incorporate some.

JohnO said...

Mark Tavani and Keith Kahla were on a panel at Backspace. They were so freakin' smart about thrillers and espionagers I was tempted to switch genres.

greta garbo said...

I was in the middle of the room, in one of the not-terribly-comfortable seats. Mark's talk was everything she said - and more - a really excellent presentation. Coming in a close second (for me) was Hallie Ephron's talk on generating suspense.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for taking the notes through your affliction! Very nice list.

Lynne Matson said...

Awesome! Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

I can only echo what every one else said. Thanks, Janet.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your efforts. I am posting this to my Collection Box of important quotes and lists.

Thanks again,