Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Are you thrilling or merely mysterious?

Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

By P.J Parrish

Isn't that the best two lines of dialogue you've ever read?

I have been thinking about James Bond -- and his creator Ian Fleming – a lot lately. Partly this is because I just saw “Skyfall” (terrific flick!) but also because I'm correcting the galleys of our next book HEART OF ICE and I realized it isn’t a thriller.

I’m supposed to be a thriller writer. Yet this new book is really more of a true mystery. Which has me noodling about about the differences between the two and how all the sub-genres in crime fiction are criss-crossing each other faster than panicked chickens.

Years ago, I was a judge for the International Thriller Writers first contest and our First Novel committee had a devil of a time trying to decide which books qualified as thrillers and which did not. You can't limit the definition, as some still insist on doing, to the hoary formula: A common man thrust into extraordinary circumstances in (insert exotic locale here) faces down a (insert monster or menace here) with the help of the beautiful and mysterious (insert female stereotype here) to save (insert organization, country or world here) before the clock ticks down to the final second.

So what IS a thriller?

Beats me. And we won the ITW Thriller Award with our book AN UNQUIET GRAVE (which to my mind is not a thriller but a classic whodunit with a creepy grave exhumation). So while I try to get out of the weeds this week with my overdue galleys, I thought I’d turn over the thriller question to someone with a higher pay grade than mine – Ian Fleming. He wrote this essay in 1962 but it’s still got some really good advice in it for us all -- especially that bit about rewriting –- no matter if you’re thrilling or merely mysterious.

By Ian Fleming

People often ask me, "How do you manage to think of that? What an extraordinary (or sometimes extraordinarily dirty) mind you must have." I certainly have got vivid powers of imagination, but I don't think there is anything very odd about that.

We are all fed fairy stories and adventure stories and ghost stories for the first 20 years of our lives, and the only difference between me and perhaps you is that my imagination earns me money. But, to revert to my first book, CASINO ROYALE, there are strong incidents in the book which are all based on fact. I extracted them from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.

The line between fact and fantasy is a very narrow one. I think I could trace most of the central incidents in my books to some real happenings.

We thus come to the final and supreme hurdle in the writing of a thriller. You must know thrilling things before you can write about them. Imagination alone isn't enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction.

Having assimilated all this encouraging advice, your heart will nevertheless quail at the physical effort involved in writing even a thriller. I warmly sympathise with you. I too, am lazy. My heart sinks when I contemplate the two or three hundred virgin sheets of foolscap I have to besmirch with more or less well chosen words in order to produce a 60,000 word book.

One of the essentials is to create a vacuum in my life which can only be satisfactorily filled by some form of creative work - whether it be writing, painting, sculpting, composing or just building a boat. To give my hands something to do, I decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book.

The therapy was successful. And while I still do a certain amount of writing in the midst of my London Life, it is on my annual visits to Jamaica that all my books have been written.

But, failing a hideaway such as I possess, I can recommend hotel bedrooms as far removed from your usual "life" as possible. Your anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and distractions will create a vacuum which should force you into a writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will also make you write fast and with application. I do it all on the typewriter, using six fingers. The act of typing is far less exhausting than the act of writing, and you end up with a more or less clean manuscript.

The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine. I write for about three hours in the morning and I do another hour's work between six and seven in the evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and putting them away in a spring-back folder. The whole of this four hours of daily work is devoted to writing narrative.

I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used "terrible" six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren't disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks.

I don't even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished.

When my book is completed I spend about a week going through it and correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting passages. I then have it properly typed with chapter headings and all the rest of the trimmings. I then go through it again, have the worst pages retyped and send it off to my publisher.

They are a sharp-eyed bunch at Jonathan Cape and, apart from commenting on the book as a whole, they make detailed suggestions which I either embody or discard. Then the final typescript goes to the printer and in due course the galley or page proofs are there and you can go over them with a fresh eye. Then the book is published and you start getting letters from people saying that Vent Vert is made by Balmain and not by Dior, that the Orient Express has vacuum and not hydraulic brakes, and that you have mousseline sauce and not Bearnaise with asparagus.

Such mistakes are really nobody's fault except the author's, and they make him blush furiously when he sees them in print. But the majority of the public does not mind them or, worse, does not even notice them, and it is a dig at the author's vanity to realise how quickly the reader's eye skips across the words which it has taken him so many months to try to arrange in the right sequence.

But what, after all these labours, are the rewards of writing and, in my case, of writing thrillers?

First of all, they are financial. You don't make a great deal of money from royalties and translation rights and so forth and, unless you are very industrious and successful, you could only just about live on these profits, but if you sell the serial rights and the film rights, you do very well. Above all, being a successful writer is a good life. You don't have to work at it all the time and you carry your office around in your head. And you are far more aware of the world around you.

Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings and, since the main ingredient of living, though you might not think so to look at most human beings, is to be alive, this is quite a worthwhile by-product of writing.


  1. Great essay. It occurs to me, as I read this, how little changes in the creation process whether 50 years ago or today or whether one is a well-known writer or yet unpublished. The art of living and translating that life into a story is the same. It also occurs to me that I would like to create in Jamaica. Finally, appropriate to Thanksgiving here in the states, his essay makes me thankful I write in the age of computers.

  2. Well I confess I'm still not clear what defines a thriller, but the essay was awesome.

    The most powerful sentence in that essay to me was this:

    "I too, am lazy."

    That's what makes or breaks us, in any endeavor, writing or otherwise. We are all inherently lazy to some degree. So what determines success is self discipline and the ability to overcome that lazy leaning we have.

    Thanks for sharing this essay. I needed that.

    BK Jackson

  3. I've always thought a mystery is like a maze, and the Lead works his or her way through it, following clues. A thriller is like the trash compacter in Star Wars. Closing, closing, death imminent. That may be the key. I write about the "death stakes" in all great stories (3 kinds of death possible) and if it could happen at any time, and the Lead keeps dodging it, it's probably a thriller.

    I love the prospect of 60,000 word thrillers, BTW, which can now be self-published. Fleming's working method is a good one.


  4. Nice post, Kris, and a terrific essay from one of my all-time favorite authors. Defining the difference between mysteries and thrillers has always been an exciting exercise. Some might suggest taking the same approach with either one of them that Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Potter Steward did in defining pornography. “I know it when I see it.” As president emeritus of the International Thriller Writers, it was expected of me to be able to define a thriller when asked. And I’m also currently one of the judges for the Best Novel category for a national mystery writers association. So it’s helpful for me to have it clear in my mind what defines a mystery. Here’s how I look at the two: A mystery starts with an event and the rest of the story is about discovering who caused it. A thriller starts with the threat of an event and the rest of the story is about preventing it. Although my definitions are broad, and there are more exceptions than can be counted, I’ve found that I can usually identify the difference between the two within the first 20 pages.

  5. Julie: Yeah, it's uncanny, isn't it, how little things change. Which is sort of affirming in this age of chaos.!

    To BK: Oh man, I am so with you on this one. I am the world's laziest writer. Or maybe the most terrified one. My sister Kelly has to constantly remind me that perfection equals paralysis and that I just need to get SOMETHING on the page.

  6. To James and Joe:
    I think that being forced to think about the differences between the two genres makes us better writers. If you dissect the sheer mechanics of each you really begin to notice their respective strengths.

  7. David Morrell was asked about the difference between a mystery and a thriller at a conference I attended. He said that a mystery has a big tension spike at the start when the murder occurs, flatlines while the detective uncovers the clues, and then spikes again during the apprehension of the killer. A thriller, on the other hand, has a series of events that rise in a jagged line to the eventual climax. As a mystery fan, I'm not sure I'd agree with his definitions.

    Joe Moore, I would mostly agree with your description, except in some cases, we know who did it and we have to figure out how it was done. Columbo was a good example of that kind of mystery.


  8. “A guest post by an author who has been dead for almost half a century? A feat even Mr Bond would find difficult I think!”

    A great post and a very interesting read, thanks. It’s amazing how little has actually changed in 50 years. The advice on not editing as you go is especially useful, as I know I have a habit of going back and tinkering. Although I would hope that the financial rewards aren’t first of all in the mind of a writer, as they’re probably going to be rather disappointed if they don’t get published (well even more so.)

    I’m looking forward to seeing Skyfall, as I’ve been enjoying Bond films since I was a kid. That exchange between Bond and Goldfinger is still one of my all time favourite scenes (well written, well acted and the look on Bond’s face is priceless.)

    As for the key question, I think it’s a very fine line between a thriller and a mystery and most of the time I’m not sure there is one.

    If the story is about stopping a killer from striking again or foiling a terrorist plot it sounds like a thriller. Except usually to foil the dastardly deeds requires piecing together clues or gathering information to figure out who it is and what they are planning, which sounds like a mystery.

    And if you start out with the mystery of who killed someone, most will end with a thrilling conclusion of some sort. Who hasn’t felt thrilled at working out who did it just before the fictional detective, or felt the tension as that detective finally confronts the murderer?

    That said, I think between you Joe and James you have the best definition I’ve seen.

    All the Best,

    Matthew (who is plotting a thriller… I think.)