Thick Thrillers and the Rewards of Close Reading

Kurt Vonnegut said that a reviewer who attacks a novel is like someone who puts on full armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. I agree with that sentiment. But I also think some hot fudge sundaes are more satisfying than others.

When is a novel extra delicious? To me, it’s when I can sink my teeth into the novel – or when a novel sinks its teeth into me. I think the best fiction is vampiric. It feeds off of the reader, and the reader feeds off of the fiction.

Let’s look at what makes a thriller full-blooded and thick, something that rewards the time invested in reading it.

The main feature of a ‘thick thriller’ is that it provokes thought without demanding conclusions. Keats called this ‘negative capability.’ Take Clarice’s relationship with Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. What price is worth paying for the lambs’ silence? Is she justified in dealing with one monster to catch another? The book does not force you to choose.

Speculation gets the job done too. Real speculation, not some hokey science where suddenly someone’s a perfect telepath or a ‘scientist’ invents a way to freeze time. Take Daniel Suarez’s titular Daemon. How close is that to happening? Would society splinter in the way he envisions? The novel places itself on the razor’s edge and explores how the things would fall.

Two more: character and moral choices. A moral choice doesn’t have to imply ambiguity. But something with a real moral choice gives the reader some brain food. Ditto for characters. A book that provides insight into human character gains an extra layer that thinner books lack. One way to do this is to double your characters: make the bad guy and the good guy mirror images of each other in many respects, doubles for each other, so that when they do turn out differently, the character reasons are highlighted. Tom Riddle and the Boy Who Lived are doubles for each other. So are Tyler and the Fight Club narrator, or Jekyll and Hyde.

And there’s always plain old cleverness. Give me a bon mot, a fresh spin on an old image, a wise observation about the state of the world. I’m easy. It’s a hot fudge sundae, for goodness sakes!

Just don’t make it so thin that it tastes like paper. I want a book that I can savor, that I can look at closely and find ever finer details to treasure.

public domain - NASA

Cracking the Top 100!

I’m delighted that The Sword of the Magi is currently #28 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases for technothrillers. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the success.

This is probably an appropriate place to put a few things I’ve learned from the process of writing and publishing the book, so here we go (keeping in mind I have a lot more to learn!).

1) 3rd person limited POV rules. WAY back in high school, I don’t remember this POV ever being taught. There was 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, but 3rd person was always presented as author omniscient. This leads to head hopping. Although some successful authors do head hop (Catherine Coulter hops into my head as one such), they do it very sparingly. 3rd person limited is basically as limiting and almost as intimate as 1st person, but it doesn’t jar the reader when you jump narrators at a chapter break. I cant’ get into a Patterson book, for example, that mixes 1st and 3rd.

2) Writing efficiently and quickly is key. There is so much else to do – marketing, publishing (formatting, cover, uploading, etc.), learning craft, life – that writing fast is super important. I can’t say I’m a fast writer, unfortunately. Yet. Will be working on that!

3) Readers are forgiving. I heard Lee Child talk about how people would email him and pick on things like, “You screwed up in your newest Jack Reacher novel. You can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey like Jack does on p. 200, you moron!” But honestly, it seems that readers might complain about stuff like that, but it doesn’t stop them from buying books. Nonetheless, I still think big errors – like taking a chemical rocket from Earth to Jupiter in four days – would still depress sales.

4) Genre is king. If fiction were college football, romance would be the SEC (well, except maybe this year). I think it would take an extraordinary horror book to have the success that a simply good romance book can have these days (maybe not from King, but from a previously unknown author).

5) Kboards Writers’ Cafe board is awesome. I have learned a lot there. Also, I recommend James Scott Bell’s advice, and the blog he contributes to,

6) Perspective. Success isn’t worth the work, in my opinion, if you don’t have someone to share it with. This can come into play with point #2 above. I’m in a slightly different position than a lot of debut authors. I don’t want to give up my day job. On top of that, I love spending time with my family. That puts writing lower on the priority list, and that makes writing efficiently even more important. In a future post, I’ll try to post some tricks and tips to get the most out of your time and still write thoughtful, meaningful stories without spending all day staring at a blank word processor screen.