Thrillerfest banner

A couple of months now have allowed me time to reflect on this great conference – probably the best and most well-organised event I’ve been to.  It was a hell of a long way to go from Christchurch so I wasn’t surprised to find I was the only Kiwi there among 500+ attendees. I did find a couple of Aussie ‘cousies’ though.

A definite highlight was being hosted by the FBI for a day at their NYC headquarters. A range of highly skilled but personable special agents had 40 minutes presenting case studies within their portfolios: organised crime, terrorism, drugs, kidnapping, piracy. It was all covered – how the crime came to notice, gathering intel, planning and executing the arrest. It was interesting to learn they don’t just take cops into the agency. One guy was an expert in jewellery. He told us of a lawyer who cross examined him in the witness box.

Q. “You call yourself a special agent.”

A “The FBI has given me that designation.”

Q “Do you agree with them that you’re special?”

A “I simply accept the title. If it helps to know if anyone thinks I’m special, I can say with reasonable certainty that my mother does.”

Counsel wisely changed tack.

The second day was Mastercraft. My cohort had 8 writers rapt with Grant Blackwood who delivered his class with his trusty i-pad. He has had 16 books published, 9 NYT Best sellers. He said he spent 12 years getting published. Not only has he had his own books published but he’s co written with /for Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. Having read extensively about writing it was great to get many important principles reinforced and demonstrated in an intensive day and to learn what the US publishing industry considers the 5 elements of “big” books, i.e. commercially successful with wide appeal.

  1. They must be extraordinary and appropriate to the genre (sub text = you need to read widely in the genre in which you write). “Readers want to know why the character puts up with shit.” The motive has to be personal yet universal. Play the “why”, “why”, “why” game, brainstorming reasons about a character’s view, starting with, e.g. ‘X hates people, – why?’ The triple why “drills for motivation” . “Note,” Grant says, “That personal history is not character. The broken nose, the scar – these are placeholder descriptions, but what is the story behind them?’
  2. High concept = almost over the top, slightly outrageous, doesn’t/can’t happen in real life, extraordinary to readers, beyond their life experience.
  3. Extraordinary stakes – the reader has to care. They can be global,  bad guy trying to do terrible things, or personal, a life’s scarring after the death of a beloved family or friend and where the failure to achieve the story goal will deeply haunt the protagonist.
  4. Roller coaster ride – “The nucleus of the roller coaster is the hanging question, the essence of suspense with both large and small questions where the reader is looking for answers. The small – what did she mean by that? The large – will he survive this? Will she discover she’s been betrayed? How?” Examples: a new piece of information, new insights into or changed attitudes of characters, a resolve to take action, startling statements, realization of flaws, fears or incompetency.
  5. Extraordinary setting -immersing the reader in a world so that they feel they are there. “Done right, nothing is mundane, not just the little details of description but the click that tells them they are in an authentic place – factual or at least plausibly authentic. Put the reader as a fly on the wall, help them acquire vicarious expertise.” On description, Grant says,”Recognize when you’ve described someone or some place well enough, don’t overdo it (my ed – Anna Rogers’s refrain of less is more) it slows down pace and pulls the reader out of the story.

Then he guided us through the key points of a 20 word premise, something we should have before we  write our first words on the page, before we outline (for those of us who do – 50-50 in our class). The idea of a 20 word limit is focus on the heart of the story quickly.  A premise must answer these questions: who is the protagonist, what incites the protagonist to get into the story, what must the protagonist do to fulfill the overarching story goal and who will oppose the protagonist and why.

On these questions there are other points to consider:  pinpoint the exact place of inciting incident that draws the protagonist into the story. This incident must be incapable of being ignored, i.e. there must be some harm to self or others if the protagonist fails to act.  Why is it important to them, what is the cost of failure, what must (s)he achieve, how far will (s)he go.

By the time we got to Pitchfest, My premise for Presumed Guilty had grown to a pitch of an “acceptable” 24 words: “Attorney Sasha Stace risks her career to get justice for an ex-lover charged with murder, and uncovers a powerful mix of corruption and revenge.”

It’s not easy! Especially when you know so much good meaty stuff has to be left out but that is the essence of the story.

In Craftfest, Alison Leotta, an ex Washington DC prosecutor, now writer of legal thrillers, enumerated the top 10 mistakes in crime stories:

  1. Getting terminology wrong
  2. Gun toting cops – the majority use their verbal skills before pulling guns. She also made the comment that in DC, 10% of cops make 90% of the arrests!
  3. Describing what you’ve seen on TV – “morgues are not often how they appear on TV”
  4. Fingerprints on guns – “More often than not, they’re not there. You need the smooth flat surface combined with oils. A lot of guns are made to repel prints.”
  5. Using the lack of vaginal injuries to assume consent. “It’s the majority of cases where there are no intimate injuries – more likely to have injuries in forced anal intercourse, an area ‘not as stretchy’.”
  6. A confession with an attorney present.  “Very rare indeed for an attorney to say nothing. Much more common is a reverse proffer – where the evidence is outlined and the attorney suggests a deal.”
  7. Prosecutors and cops in stilettos  – “You don’t want to break a toe in court which you’d have every chance of doing towing big “lit” bags (law literature) and giant charts of a human vagina blocking your vision.You can’t lug all that stuff in stilettos.”
  8. Circumstantial evidence is not worthy – “It’s the reverse,” Alison said.
  9. Rapists lurk in bushes – “You’re far more likely to be assaulted by that trusted male friend. Pedophiles purposely put themselves in positions of trust so if you worry about this stuff, worry about who to open the door to.
  10. Stomach contents can be tied to an organic farm – too much reliance on the good stories spun by CSI.

Next up, tips and insights from Greg Isles and others, and the manic experience of Pitchfest.