So I’m talking to my new good buddy Grant Blackwood, international bestselling author and co-writer of the ongoing Tom Clancy novels (Clancy being dead, he needs a cowriter) and he says to me, “Your book sucks.”
Well, maybe not in those exact words. And definitely not in that tone. But the meaning was clear. He might be right.
Last week I attended Thrillerfest, the annual five-day conference of International Thriller Writers, of which I am now a member despite, I learned, my book not exactly meeting the definition of a thriller. As Blackwood told me during a coaching session – all joking aside, he and every other writer, wannabee, agent and publisher there could not have been nicer, kinder to a newbee like me or more giving of their time and advice – thriller novels require a villain, a strong hero and a propelling event to kick-start the action.
No on all three counts.
My book does have a hero. John Kelly is a good guy, not weak but just regular, a detective plowing through a tough week. Getting ready for a trial, he learns two things that will change his life: (SPOILER ALERT) His girlfriend Rachel is pregnant, and the evidence he drunkenly destroyed last year is now needed in a new case. But it’s more than just evidence. And Rachel is the defense attorney in this week’s trial. And his brother hates him because… I’ll stop here and leave some plots unearthed. No earth-shattering cataclysm occurs, just a pile of rocks falling on his head steadily for a week till he may or may not be able to take it. (Spoiler of the spoiler: even if I sell the book today, publishing’s pace is glacial and the earliest you might hold it in your hands would be a year. And you will surely have forgotten this by then.)
I wanted to write a novel about cops in which the cops don’t die. That’s too common, too easy a gimmick and too ugly for an ex-cop like me to enjoy. In fact, I don’t even plan to shoot a cop till my third book. But let’s get through this first one first. It’s not a breakneck rollercoaster of death-defying moments, it’s a paced, realistic run through a gantlet of street, bureaucratic and human challenges (not gauntlet, and if you knew that ten points to you!)
Thrillerfest was fun, fascinating and (you knew I’d do it) thrilling for this unpublished novelist. I attended panels on topics like tightening up your first page, how to ensure your use of point of view is clear, five rookie mistakes to avoid, essentials of story structure. All the things successful published authors may still struggle to do, and new writers are learning to do. And I learned my book is not quite as finished and ready as I want.
And edit, and cut to fit, since I learned from agents that my current length of 101,000 words is too long for a debut author to likely sell to a publisher. More like 70,000 to 90,000 words. And selling to a publisher is key: y’all don’t get it till they publish it, and they have to be reasonably certain it will sell before they buy it from me. So it has to be pretty. A lot prettier than it is right now. Since I got back from the conference whole characters and chapters have been eliminated, in most cases saved for the next books. The time frame is adjusted for speedier flow. Jokes, asides and divergences from the tightening path of the plot are gone. I am very excited about this and, now that I can put my ego aside and tinker with my precious darling words, it seems to be improving. (No ego here.)
Plus, if I rewrite it, all my family and friends and beta-readers who have already read it have to buy it to see what I changed. That’s about a dozen sales right there.
Thrillerfest also taught me what to call it. The genre of my book has been tough to pin down. It is mostly a police procedural (think step-by-step cop action) but it has courtroom drama in it. It’s a mystery but not a whodunit. As I wrote before, it’s not a thriller in the apparently accepted sense.
But what is it? It’s hard-boiled, overcooked and scrambled. It has a dark tone and a flawed hero, one whose motto might be, in the words of one of my new favorite authors E. A. Aymar, “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker and weaker till you die.”
It’s noir. As in film noir: dark with moral ambivalence, an antihero brought down by circumstance and a femme fatale. I didn’t set out to write noir, it just came out that way. Like Jessica Rabbitt did (ten more points, maybe?)
And that’s what I learned at thriller school.
P.S. That beautiful poster I posted that my friend, photographer Jim Craige, made for me with a mockup book cover to get agents’ attention? Lots of compliments from conference staff. Zero calls. Oh well.