Thrillers, Part 3 of 4: Villains

The villain in a thriller is generally not your run-of-the-mill murderer. He is someone with a goal in mind, and he is driving toward that goal, regardless of the damage he causes along the way. While he may enjoy that destruction, whether human (serial killer, assassin, strong-man dictator) or property (arsonist, bomber, unscrupulous land baron) he could just as easily be someone who reluctantly sees the damage he leaves in his wake as an inevitable cost to the good he thinks he's doing (religious fanatic, environmental extremist, patriot assassin). While she may be evil, to me it is much more fascinating to read about the villain who thinks she is the hero of the story, who is a true believer in a cause she has either lost perspective on or has just gone too far in support of.

Either way, his plans are greater than a single act, usually building to some larger, ultimate goal that our protagonist must prevent. In the book Silence of The Lambs, [SPOILER STARTS] Buffalo Bill is building himself a lady-suit [SPOILER ENDS]. In the film Taken, [SPOILER STARTS] Marko is seeking to keep a steady supply of fresh flesh for his human trafficking operation [SPOILER ENDS]. In my own book, Presence of Malice, [SPOILER STARTS] Gerald Gannery is determined to gaslight his partner for the embezzlement of which he, himself, is guilty in order to free himself up to take a lucrative development deal for cable TV [SPOILER ENDS].

The villain's evil usually comes not just from his own selfishness, but from his willingness, even eagerness, to accede the pain and suffering of others in order to meet his aims. Even if she agonizes over each and every life taken, she takes it anyway because to her, the end will justify whatever means she sees necessary to apply.

In a thriller there is the concept of the ticking clock, which I will explain in more detail in the next and final part to this post, but I wanted to mention here (and will most likely repeat next month) that the ticking clock doesn't necessarily have to be a literal clock. In many cases it is the deadline for the fruition of the villain's plans, whether arbitrarily set by him or by his own need for urgency due to other schedules being enforced upon him (the president's plane departs, a shipment to be hijacked is en route, the laundry truck departs the prison, etc.).

As I mentioned before, my favorite villain is the one who thinks she is ultimately doing good, or better yet the one who is besieged by guilt over her own actions but compelled to do them anyway. But there is also something to be said for the gleefully evil - the serial killer, the psycho musician convinced he is a soldier for Satan, the unhinged skinhead with a hidden lair full of torture victims, etc. Whatever your taste, always remember that to keep the tension, either the villain must not be redeemed, or if she is, it must already be too late to stop the events she has put in motion (or seemingly so, until our hero takes action).

I wanted to spend time on henchmen and other companions of the villain who must be defeated on the way to the villain himself, but that will have to wait for another, longer discussion on villains.

Meanwhile, what are your favorite villains? What bad guys do you love to hate? Let me know in the comments, below.

Thrillers, Part 2 of 4: Heroes

HeroHeroes in thrillers can be anyone: male, female, any walk of life, any level of expertise in solving crimes, spying, or thwarting villains. Heck, in the long-running television series Dexter, probably the single best example of genre-bending fiction, the hero was a serial killer. (If you haven't binged this series, I submit it is among the top ten indispensable for any aspiring thriller writer.) In my own series of books starting with Rogue Agenda and continuing this fall in a title yet to be announced, the protagonist and heroine is a phone-sex girl.

A common trope of the genre is the washed-out, disgraced ex-professional, usually an ex-cop/detective/soldier. Usually a guy, he is usually an alcoholic heavy smoker with a harridan ex-wife, an embittered child, and a long-suffering girlfriend. He's wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, all of which usually eventually turns out to be undeserved. I see the attraction of the trope; these can often be great, complex, layered characters to write. The problem is it's been played and played out. I would encourage aspiring thriller writers to reach deeper, find other ways to make your protagonist interesting and complex.

Some scholars of fiction will tell you that the hero must have some personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. It isn't enough that he/she is just doing their job, investigating a crime or seeking to thwart a villain. They must be under threat themselves, seeking to clear their own name from suspicion, prevent the death of a loved one, etc. It is the only way, they argue, to justify the hero moving forward against obstacles and resistance. Otherwise, why would they bother? Why suffer through depredations, torture, and possible death for the sake of something less? I agree that this often makes a compelling plot, but I think it is extremely dogmatic and cynical to try to maintain that this is the only way to impel a hero and their story forward.

I think it is just as compelling to witness a hero risk life and limb for higher ideals than self-preservation, to read about the patriot soldier willing to stake his life for his country, experience the conviction of an advocate undergoing agonizing trials in the name of just doing the right thing. To me there is no more noble sacrifice than one that saves the day in such a way that no one will ever know, for which the hero will never gain notoriety or gratitude.

What makes the hero compelling is conviction and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend their ideals. These can be every bit as personal and precious as his/her life and limb if written in an engaging, interesting, and exciting way.

Who are some of your favorite heroes in fiction, thrillers or other genres? What is it that impels them through the story? I'd love to read your comments below.

What Is This Blog Post About?

Into The DistanceSometimes an idea for my next post on this blog comes to me in a flash, all at once, all written in my head. Other times I struggle. Sometimes the struggle is to come up with an idea, sometimes the struggle is to pick from way-too-many ideas teeming around in my head. Today the struggle is that I have all kinds of disjointed thoughts about writing flitting around back and forth like an unruly flight of starlings, some near misses but never a collision, and no single thought amounts to a full and complete blog post. I'm trying to decide if any combination of thoughts might amount to one. Let's explore together, shall we?

One thought came to me as I binged on several movies and TV shows in rapid succession during a recent convalescence, interspersed with news coverage of the recent "peaceful" transition of power in Washington DC. No, this isn't a political post, as such. However, I saw vast numbers of people who desperately clung to their own paradigm of the world, so consumed with insecurity in their own beliefs that they simply - and quite publicly - flat-out refused to accept any reality that clashed with what they so desperately wished to be true, in the face of facts quite to the contrary. Often making up things out of whole-cloth in a shocking attempt to negate reality, and convincing themselves fully that their made-up things were true.

This got me to thinking about those who read what I, as a novelist, write. They are not reading my stories in a vacuum. They bring their own paradigm to the experience, as had I when I wrote it. To the degree that their paradigm clashes with mine, there is a sliding scale to which they are willing to continue reading. Some might accept my paradigm and still enjoy the story, perhaps even altering their own to some degree because of what they read. Some perhaps not, but still appreciating my vision of reality. Then again some, if the shift between my paradigm and theirs is too right-angle, might reject my story out of hand, some not even finishing it. Some who, I submit, are insecure in their own strata of beliefs, might feel threatened by my outlook, to the degree that they feel compelled to pen a particularly acid-laced rant in a review of my book.

I, myself, have only been unable to finish two or three fiction books because I couldn't tolerate the premise, but there was at least one book that I literally threw across the room in rage before I even knew what I was doing. Others I have put down it disgust, only that one gave me such a visceral reaction.

The point is, each reader who comes to peruse our work is diverse from any other at the margin, and in a spectrum those differences become vast. Can we predict what any one person is going to think of our writing? In some extreme cases perhaps, but at the margin I suggest it's impossible. There are just too many variables.

I often make the point that market chasing is a fool's games. Trying to read market trends and writing to what's currently selling is the quickest way to insanity, especially given how fast our market shifts. It's why the term "sell-out" is spoken with such disdain - people who attempt to do so fail more often than they succeed and often in the process lose sight of their own original motives for writing.

Just ask any published writer who sold the first book of a series that they wrote after years of market chasing. It's exciting at first...until they realize they have to write a sequel, and another, and yet more, all based on a premise they shopped for, not one for which they felt any real passion or love. Suddenly they're locked into a vortex of having to churn out book after book on a story line they feel no real connection to and invariably grow to hate. This also consumes all of their writing energy and time and leaves little or none for them to pursue the writing they always wanted to do from the beginning.

I have always encouraged other writers to write what they like to read, write what they love to write, write for themselves. The readers will come. The right readers. The ones who will love what you write because they can sense the love, the integrity, the heart with which you write. You will be much happier writing what you enjoy, and that will come through as well. You will write better because it's what you love. And you'll save yourself a lot of tail-chasing, teeth-gnashing, and head-to-brick-wall contact.

Enthusiasm Refill

The festive holiday season fills us with excitement, hope, cheer, enthusiasm, optimism. For several months we have something to look forward to. For many of us it is the excitement to see family and friends we haven't seen is a long time, for others it's seeing what Père Noël left for us under the Christmas tree, and for still others, like me, it's the anticipation of watching loved ones open presents we chose and wrapped just for them.

Inevitably after the holiday season there is a period of blahs, the unavoidable doldrums as we look ahead to what can't help to be mundane pursuits after the bright tinsel and blinking lights of such a heart-warming and lighthearted time. The lingering hangover from New Years Eve doesn't help.

Santa WritesHere's a perfect way to reignite your enthusiasm: write. Whenever I write, even when I have to force myself to sit down and put fingertips to keys, whenever I allow myself to be transported into the world I'm creating in my own stories, my spirits are always lifted, my heart lightened, my mind liberated.

It's safe to say the time-constraints of the season have necessitated that many (most?) of us have had to neglect our writing, even if only for a couple of weeks or so. This is the perfect time to get back to it. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it's productive.

And it will keep at bay the post-holiday blahs.

“The Silver Moment”

It's a term I made up to describe a twist in fiction that can make the "black moment" more shocking to a reader. The black moment is a part of the basic structure of fiction that has been knocking around for centuries.

  • The inciting incident.
  • The mounting tension.
  • Complications.
  • Climax.
  • The black moment.
  • Denouement.

There are as many variations on this structure as there are writers who write about writing, but roughly this is the basic formula for your plot in fiction. Everything else is a refinement on this.

The black moment is the part of the story just before everything is resolved when things seem to be as bad as they can get for our protagonist, when all seems lost and the antagonist is about to win.

The silver moment, as I call it, is infrequent in fiction but you should recognize it when you see it. It comes just before the black moment. It is the part of our story when, in contrast to the black moment, everything seems to have worked out for our protagonist, when all seems to have been resolved as it should have been and the good guys have won. The silver lining of the cloud that has been hanging over our protagonist throughout the book has, in effect, been found.

In this case, the black moment comes when the antagonist, thought defeated, reappears out of the blue with one last card to play, one last-ditch effort at accomplishing his goal, or at the very least, at destroying those who prevented him from achieving those goals in the silver moment.

Rogue Agenda by Kevin Paul TracyFor example, in Rogue Agenda the terrorists have all been rounded up by the Feds, the Al-Serhemni family have successfully escaped to Canada, and while Lainie still has an arson/manslaughter rap hanging over her head the reader knows she is innocent and, if there is justice, will be exonerated. But wait...what about the hit man who started this whole mess by trying to kill the CIA agent and has been stalking Lainie ever since? For god's sake, check the closet before you go to sleep!

Presence of Malice by Kevin Paul TracyIn th conclusion of my book Presence of Malice the villain, Dr. Gerald Gannery, is wanted by several Federal agencies and our heroes - Jet, Gregory, Patricia, and Paul - are enjoying their victory and have let their guards down. Unaware - but about to find out - that Gannery has found the brownstone where Jet has hidden his paraplegic brother and is aware of the money that his henchman tried to bribe the fixer with...and is now driven by a murderous thirst for vengeance.

The silver moment can definitely be overused. If the reader comes to expect it, it loses its impact to make the black moment come as a greater surprise and seem even blacker. But if used judiciously, it can be an effective tool in bringing a shocking and satisfying story to your readers.

Lazy Writer’s Syndrome

Strategies to keep your story hot and productive

There’s nothing worse than Lazy Writer’s Syndrome. There are no symptoms in its early stages. It only becomes apparent when we look up from our busy lives and realize we haven’t been writing for—oh, ten days, ten weeks--ten months.computer-1053809_1280

We have an ongoing accountability system in my critique group. Those of us who choose to participate report in once a week with their new words written.  Originally, we aimed for the word count equivalent of 20 pages.

Any incentive program needs to be flexible to succeed, and ours has. When vacations, illnesses, family emergencies and the like occur, we adjust our weekly goals—or we just keep doing the best we can and turn in a wimpy report with pride because the overall goal is to keep writing new. It’s been an effective program for me.

Our reports vary from “Sent a query and wrote 300 new words” to amazing reports of over 10,000 new words. It depends on what life is presenting to us.

At times when I’m not writing new material, it’s seldom due to writer’s block. Rather, it’s because I’ve let the story get cold. When the story’s cold, the characters don’t drop in and talk to me. For those of you who think that sounds bizarre, it could also be expressed as moments when plot solutions come to you out of the blue—when showering, walking, or during the alpha state when sleeping.

If the story’s not “hot” – fresh and on my mind, as in when I’m writing new material – those character voices and plot inspirations never visit.

Never.

If I’ve allowed the story to get cold, I’m shut out. As Jeff Probst says on Survivor to the losers of the Immunity Challenge, “Head on back to camp. I’ve got nothing for you.” That’s when I languish in an “empty creative mind” state, which makes it paralyzingly difficult to fill the writer’s chair.

Here, then, are my strategies for recovering from Lazy Writer’s Syndrome.

  1. Maintain a calendar for one week.
  2. Record your activities in quarter-hour segments for that week
  3. Review and prioritize. Abandon all "perfect" goals -- neat house, varied cuisine, excessive volunteer work, new hobbies that can be explored another season/year.
  4. Maintain a calendar and enter small writing goals daily. "1 hour writing, "2 hrs writing" etc. I achieve much more success when I draw a little square box in front of my goals. This satisfies the “gold star” child in me because it gives me an opportunity to put a check in that box. I know, it’s silly. But it works!
  5. Only after #4, schedule other stuff that needs to be done. (This “rocks and sand” concept is from First Things First by Stephen Covey—highly recommended reading. It changed my life. It can change yours, too.)
  6. Consider meditation. When you come home from work, go to your special place and decompress with meditation.
  7. If you’re spent from a demanding day, consider a power nap. For me, I only need 15-20 minutes and I'm "almost" as rejuvenated as I am in the morning.
  8. Be kind to yourself. It takes planning and fortitude--and a healthy dose of tenacity.
  9. Finally, team up with a fellow writer or group of writers and agree to post your progress once a week. Once a week gives you the freedom to have a couple of lackluster days but still turn in a respectable week's end report. Call it BICFOK (Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keys) or create your own name for it.

You can defeat Lazy Writer’s Syndrome! Good luck, and if you have some tips to add, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!

Things I Hate to Admit to Myself

There's nothing that turns me off of a keynote speech at any gathering of writers - be it conferences, workshops, retreats, whatever - more than when the speaker starts out by telling you how impossible it is for you to become a successful writer. When they say that less than 1% of all books submitted get published, and fewer still make any profit, and yet fewer still become best sellers and launch an author's career. Or when they point out such cold hard facts as: it takes sales of 500-1000 books in the first few days of release to even get on most book-lists' radar. I could go on, but I'm guessing you hate these statistics as much as I do.

I finally sat down the other day and asked myself a very hard question: Why? Why do I hate such statistics? They are facts, after all, facts based on very real hard data, and as such they are inescapable. Resenting a fact is like hating a peach pit - you can go on hating it all you want, but every peach you eat is still going to have a pit, no matter how much you hate it. You can have someone remove the pit for you before you eat it, but this is only hiding the pit from you, not changing the fact that every peach has a pit. (Those of you who read last month's post may well wonder what's with this author's obsession with fruit. Well, mind your own business.)

We can hide from facts all we want, but that doesn't make them any less implacably true.

But I still hate these publishing statistics. And after some self-examination I know why, and why you do, too. Such statistics are like the bully who joins a pickup game of stick ball only to hit the ball over the fence and across the highway where no one can retrieve it. They are the arrogant young punk who gets on the light rail train with death metal music booming out of a portable speaker. They are the one spoiled shrimp in an otherwise delightful shrimp cocktail that makes you sick all night. They are...well you get the idea. They are spoil sports, the thorn in your side, the burning vomit that comes out of your nose as well as throat.

We hate these statistics because they ruin our fun. The fun is writing, and having others read our stories. We have been conditioned to think that we are failures if we don't have thousands and thousands of readers, and more often than not it interferes with our ability to continue writing. But is that really true? While we may dream of that, how many of us, realistically, expect to make an independent living on our writing these days? Even writers you consider quite successful continued to work other more conventional jobs during the height of their success. And many others who didn't could hardly have been called wealthy or even well off. Many more died in obscurity.

My point is, why let these statistics and reality spoil the fun? Most of us who started writing didn't do it to become wealthy (and I submit, as has been said many times on this blog, that if you did you're in the wrong business.) Most of us got into writing because we had stories to tell, we love telling stories, and we can't stop. There is nothing wrong with tracking your sales and aspiring to stardom, but for God's sake don't let lagging figures and disappointing ciphers on a page beat up on your muse. It isn't her fault readers are a fickle lot, and there's no telling what may grab their fancy at any given time. Compartmentalize your business aspirations - thousands upon thousands of sales - from the fun you have when you write. I promise you, even if you die tearing tickets at a theater, or pushing rocks with your backhoe, or building submarine sandwiches for hungry briefcase warriors, or even if you're one of those warriors yourself, you'll never regret the stories you told when you could, even if only a small circle of close friends and colleagues were your audience.

Your Fantasy, Or Mine

Some of my friends talked me into entering my latest book in the RITA, the Romance Writers of America’s annual contest. One of the requirements for entering is you have to judge seven books. And since they don’t want you to judge the category you’re entered in, the books they send are a random mix of other sub-genres. The entries I received were all over the place: I had a short historical romance (the same genre as I write although with fewer words), two short contemporary romances, two contemporary novellas, a romantic suspense and an M/M romance (love story about two guys).

You might think the M/M romance would be the hardest for me to evaluate, because it’s a genre I don’t read and also completely outside my own experience. But actually, the only trouble I had with the M/M romance was deciding if it really was a love story or a mainstream, coming-of-age novel that featured a romance. (One of the RITA eligibility requirements is that the book has to have a romance as its main focus.)

The books I really struggled with were the short contemporaries. At first reading, they seemed hopelessly clichéd. For one thing, in both books the heroes were billionaires, and in a position to provide the heroine with a life of total ease and comfort. Right. And we know how often that happens in real life. And there were other well-used tropes: a secret baby, a mix-up between twins, and a hero who is a shallow playboy until he meets the one woman, the heroine, he can’t live without.

I sighed as I started the first short contemporary. Then I began to get depressed. Both of these books were published by the biggest romance publishers out there, and had worldwide distribution. I’m sure the authors have made several times as much money on their books as I made on my romance published by a small press. But that wasn’t really what discouraged me. What got to me was the realization that these books were much more successful than mine because of the fantasy they presented. No matter how trite and ridiculous it seems to me, that fantasy is clearly shared by enormous numbers of readers. These books were successful because they gave those readers what they wanted, and what those thousands of readers wanted was a fantasy that had no meaning for me.

This realization put me in a tailspin. I began to wonder if there was any point to my continuing to write romances. For a couple of days, I considered changing genres. But the vast majority of the story ideas that come to me are romances, and they’re what I enjoy writing. They are also the only genre in which I’ve ever had any real success. So it seems stupid to stop writing romance now.

I shook off the mood of gloom and defeat and finished reading the two contemporary romances. And one of them, I have to say I actually enjoyed. It seemed silly in places and some of the plot twists made me roll my eyes, and the author changed viewpoint so much that any editor I’ve ever had would have thrown up their hands in despair. But overall it was a fun read. A bite of cotton candy compared to the dark, gritty mysteries that make up a large portion of my reading fare.

The book was gone from my mind nearly as soon as I finished it. But while I was reading, I have to admit I experienced a pleasant escape from real life. I can almost understand why books like this are so popular. Because it is fun to completely forget reality for a time and pretend. Fantasies are wonderful things that can get us through our often unlovely, sometimes miserable lives.

I still struggle with the fact that my preferred romantic fantasy is a lot different than most readers. But I remind myself that there are some people who share my vision. Who want a love story where the characters are a little more flawed and realistic and face real danger and conflict. Over the years, I’ve sold quite a few books and some have been nominated for awards. I’ve received fan mail and interacted with a number of readers who thoroughly enjoyed my books. Not many, maybe. Not enough to make this a career that will pay my bills. But enough to make it worthwhile for me to keep writing. Because although the number of readers may be small, as a writer, I’m providing an enjoyable escape for more people than simply myself.

On a final note, one of the novellas was exceptional, and the historical romance was pretty good, too. And I learned a lot, not only about romance and romance readers, but about myself.