Friday, January 22, 2010

How To Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat

Today, I finished reading How To Write Killer Fiction, The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense by Carolyn Wheat.

“The best advice on writing I’ve ever seen came from a fictional character, Seymour Glass, J.D. Salinger’s cryptic antihero, tells his brother, Buddy, an aspiring writer: “You think of the book you’d most like to be reading, and then you sit down and shamelessly write it.”

While I read both Mysteries and Suspense, I realized from her description of the difference between the Mystery genre and the Suspense genre that my favorite is not actually a Mystery but Suspense. The type book I best like to read is Suspense, whose authors include: Francis, Grisham, Clancy, Ludlum, DeMille, Lustbader, LeCarre, Follett.

“In contrast to the intellectual pleasure of the mystery, suspense is an emotional roller-coaster ride; if there is a puzzle element, it is decidedly secondary to the visceral experience. The suspense hero, like the protagonist of a folk or fairy tale, faces tests that will elevate him to another level of maturity. The suspense hero, unlike most detectives who already have the skills to detect, must learn skills to cope with the new reality that has overtaken him. We readers want to see him becoming a hero through overcoming obstacles on the way to the showdown with evil. By the end of the novel, he has walked through the fire and has emerged as a different, larger person.”

The book contains three parts. Part one is devoted to the mystery. Part two is devoted to suspense. Part three touches on the writing process.

In Part Two - The Roller Coaster of Suspense, Wheat provides an in-depth analysis of the various branches of the suspense family tree. Writing about Suspense vs. Thriller she wrote, “What makes a suspense novel a thriller? My facetious answer used to be, ‘A six-figure advance,’ but I’ve come to see that it’s more than that. Yes, thrillers are big sellers, but they also take the reader to a higher level than an ‘ordinary’ suspense novel. Thriller writers aren’t afraid to take their plots, characters, situations, and locales to the max, pushing the envelope of credibility at every possible turn. They pile it on, pitting their protagonist against super-powerful enemies and putting obstacle upon obstacle in the way of success. They squeeze everything they can out of their settings, to the point where the reader ends up knowing more than he ever wanted to know about the internal working of submarines or dinosaur DNA.

And yet that’s part of the thrill, inherent in the thriller: the sense of getting more than you bargained for of being taken inside the inner circle and told things no one is supposed to know. Just when you think the plot can’t possibly take one more twist, it throws one more monkey wrench into the hero’s plans and spins your head around. It takes you toe the highest highs and the lowest lows, and if it does these things at the expense of credibility and ordinary human emotion – well, that’s what you want… You want something to rivet your eyes to the page, to let your escape into an exciting, danger-filled place.

And that's what I want to write.  Not just suspense.  I want to write a thriller. 

Now, I just need a story.  I 'm having doubts that my idea for historical mystery set in early 1800's Georgia will work for me.  If I, “...think of the book you’d most like to be reading, and then you sit down and shamelessly write it.”, it won't be a historical mystery.  It's got to be a thriller.

Also in Part Two, Wheat writes about how suspense novels borrow from The Hero’s Journey of myths. My favorite chapter is devoted to the structure of a suspense novel. For me this chapter is worth the price of the book. I will be using its instructions extensively. Another valuable chapter is on writing the ending, a difficult job at best and critical for a suspense novel.

In Part Three – The Writing Process, Wheat gives a concrete example of how to implement a storyboard to pre-plan scenes that will be very valuable to me. (especially since I’m a pre-planning freak)

I love this book. It has definitely given me a kick in the seat of the pants down the right path.  I give How To Write Killer Fiction, The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense four stars!

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