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‘Ice-pick-sharp, packed with intrigue, action and spine-chilling suspense. Devour will keep you gripped from the very first page’ Kathryn Fox

Tag Archive: Writing tips

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On writing suspense – guest blog for the Booktopian

April 21, 2020

To celebrate the launch of my new thriller Prey I was invited to write a guest blog for The Booktopian on the topic of creating suspense in thrillers. It was great fun to write and I hope you find it interesting. Here is the link. I want to thank Booktopia for the opportunity and you can purchase paperback and ebooks of Prey through their online store here.

Just in case you can’t view the article on the Booktopia site, here is the original article:

Before the world was turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic and we could no longer fly to other countries, I was at ThrillerFest in New York City. One of the big topics for panel discussion was how thriller writers create suspense. Having a suspenseful plot that builds to a satisfying climax is what thrillers are all about, after all. As well as writing crime-thrillers, I also teach thriller writing at the Australian Writers Centre and I always get asked: what is suspense. One of my favourite definitions is Alfred Hitchcock’s – ‘It is when you expect something bad to happen and you are powerless to intervene.’ At ThrillerFest, best-selling author Meg Gardiner defined suspense as ‘a state of mental uncertainty about how something will pan out.’ It’s the uncertainty that keeps readers reading, it’s the puzzle we want to solve. Add to that the rollercoaster of emotions that readers experiences: the pleasurable but nail-biting excitement and anticipation regarding an outcome, such as the detective finally catching the serial killer, or the mother, who has lost everything, finding and saving her kidnapped child.

When I was writing Prey, the first question I asked myself was why should the reader care about Olivia Wolfe, the central character? If the reader doesn’t connect with her then they won’t experience her joy and despair, her terror and moments of hope. Thrillers are very plot driven, but it is the characters people remember: Jack Reacher, Phryne Fisher, psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin, detective Jane Tennison. Which is why I spend as much time creating my characters as plotting the story. Wolfe is no ordinary journalist. She travels the world exposing heinous crimes and in so doing makes powerful enemies. She’s flawed and troubled by a past she wants to forget which creates a dramatic tension because the reader suspects her past will catch up with her. But when and how? She makes mistakes – she’s human. She’s in love with the wrong kind of guy. We’ve all been there, right? So, we can relate to her. But she’s brave and risks everything to expose a terrifying criminal syndicate who sends an assassin to kill her.

I like to raise a question and set up a mystery in the first chapter. In the opening chapter of Prey a woman is murdered by a professional killer and her boyfriend is warned to back-off or the same will happen to him. This raises the question: why was this ordinary woman murdered? Why it was made to look like a suicide. What information does the boyfriend have that’s worth killing for? In chapter two, we meet Olivia Wolfe and discover that the murder victim had met with Wolfe the day before she died and Wolfe knows a small part of a bigger mystery. It’s not until the last few chapters that we discover what the series of murders in four different countries is all about.

Here are some more of my favourite ways of building suspense:
• Don’t reveal too much, too fast – the reader wants to fill in the gaps in their knowledge about the plot and characters along the way. Keep something back.
• Drip feed vital clues and hints to the reader throughout, but keep the final piece of the puzzle until the very end.
• Use plot twists that surprise the character as well as the reader, especially in the middle part of your story.
• It’s fun to have the reader sometimes know more than the central character and be powerless to stop the character making a terrible mistake. It’s that ‘Don’t do it!’ moment.
• Ticking clocks really ramp up the suspense in a thriller too. Can he stop the faulty plane taking off in one hour? Can they diffuse the bomb in fifteen minutes? Will the serial killer take his next victim at the next full moon?
• Cliff hangers are great. They leave the reader wondering if all is lost at the end of a chapter, or hint at something bad is about to happen.
• Keep your reader unsure who will win at the climax– the hero or the adversary?
This all leads to an adrenalin pumping climax. As Jeffery Deaver once said, ‘Always keep in mind that people don’t read books to get to the middle; they read books to get to the end’.

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The relief and the worry of finishing a new book

October 20, 2019

I recently finished a new crime-thriller set on an island off Seattle in the USA. I think it’s my creepiest book yet and I hope it will keep readers guessing until the very end. I feel such an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction when the book is written and ready to be shown to the world. But in the next moment, I feel a nervousness. Will readers like it? Is it good enough? I guess time will tell. But I can honestly say that the theme of this novel means a lot to me and I have fallen in love with two of my characters – Stephanie Miller and FBI agent T.J. Samson, so I’m hoping the characters come across as real and genuine at the very least.

Here’s a little hint about the story of this new thriller…
It’s the story of a young American widow and her daughter who move to a remote island to start a new life, only to be stalked by a sadistic troll. But he is no ordinary troll, and she is no ordinary victim. Why do powerful people want Professor Stephanie Miller’s reputation trashed?

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Sharing writing secrets on Peter James TV

October 11, 2018

I always get so excited when I am about to start teaching a creative writing class. Not just because I want to encourage new authors, but because it also makes me question how I write. How could I do better? Have I picked up some bad habits? At the end of the course I feel I have learnt something too. Recently, I was particularly proud to present Sarah Bailey with a Ned Kelly Award for First Crime Fiction for The Dark Lake. Sarah attended one of my thriller writing courses and she was lovely enough to thank me for inspiring her. I wish her the very best of luck with her writing career.

The next creative writing course starts on October 15 and runs on Thursday evenings over five consecutive weeks. If you are in Sydney and have a burning desire to write a novel but you’re not sure where to start, then why not come along to Creative Writing Stage 1 at the Australian Writers Centre?

About a year ago, I was interviewed for Peter James’s YouTube channel, Peter James TV. I was asked questions about how I write, where I write, and the tricks and techniques I employ. These interviews are part of a series called The Authors’ Studio in which authors like Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, CJ Box, Sophie Hannah and more, share their writing secrets. And a few laughs. They are well worth visiting. Enjoy!

YouTube of L.A. Larkin talking about writing techniqes on Peter James TV

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Steve Berry’s twelve rules of fiction writing

September 19, 2018

As I prepare to teach a class of aspiring writers at the Australian Writers’ Centre in October, I’m reminded of the advice I received from the New York Times Bestselling Author, Steve Berry, recently. He shared with me his Twelve Rules of Fiction Writing and I’d like to share them with you, too. Here they are:

1. There are no rules. I love this rule, but I would like to add that there are reader expectations, especially genre specific expectations, and it’s a good idea to know what they are before you break them.
2. Don’t bore the reader – his list included a dull plot, not enough conflict in the story, long-winded paragraphs, and words the reader has to look up because they jolt a reader from the the world of the book.
3. Don’t confuse the reader, such as whose point of view is the reader following.
4. Don’t get caught writing. Don’t be an intrusive author. His example was this. A young kid is in danger, then his parents save him, they drive away. The kid looks back at the house where he almost died. Where his best friend lives. He’d never see that house again, is author intrusion. Better to say, he had a bad feeling he would never see that house again.
5. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you promise shock value, you’re setting high expectations. Steve doesn’t like to build up to the shock, he just gives it to the reader.
6. Don’t lie to the reader. But you can mislead if it’s in character. For instance, you can have a delusional character. The author chooses what goes on in that character’s head.
7. Don’t annoy the reader. For example, don’t overdo an accent. Or keep using a particular word all the time. Or be predictable.
8. Writing is rewriting. Steve says he goes through his manuscripts 70 times. He does his own copy edits.
9. Writing is rhythm. Getting into the nuances of the characters’ voices.
10. Short is always better. Steve is not a fan of the more British style of writing with parentheses and complex sentences. I’m a believer that succinct and punchy is best, especially in times of action. But there are times when longer sentences can be very powerful. John Le Carre is a master of the longer sentence that reveals so much.
11. Story never takes a holiday. Don’t stop the momentum of the story to explain. Show don’t tell.
12. Tell a good story. Good story trumps good writing every time. Although I would add, always strive to write well and with impact.

You can find more about Steve Berry here.
You can find details of how to enroll in Creative Writing Stage 1 with the Australian Writers Centre here. It starts Monday October 15, 2018.

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Chance favours only the prepared mind

July 17, 2018

At ThrillerFest 2018 the wonderful Karin Slaughter used a quote from Louis Pasteur which really sums up what this writers’ festival is all about: preparing authors to be great authors.

I’m lucky enough to have had four books published: three with Hachette and one with Harper Collins. I have two new manuscripts. I’ve attended many writers’ festival in the UK and Australia. This was my first time at ThrillerFest and I have never felt so inspired. I learnt a lot, not just about how to make my writing better, but how to manage the business of being an author. I met new authors I hope will remain friends for life. I met best selling authors like Lee Child, Meg Gardiner, Steve Berry and James Rollins. All, without exception, were generous with their time and advice, and above all, inclusive and welcoming. Being an author can be a lonely business, and it’s great to be reminded that we are part of a warm and friendly author community.

Over the next few blog posts, I’d like to share with you some of the insights I gained from this experience and also some of the funny stories.

I’m going to start with the mega authors panel of Lee Child, Robert Dugoni, Peter James, Lynda La Plante and Karin Slaughter. This had to be one of the funniest panel discussions I attended. Why? Because they are consummate entertainers. Let me give some examples. Lee Child has an hilarious dry wit. The panel was asked about literary authors and whether they looked down on thriller authors. Lee jumped straight in. Thrillers keep publishers solvent. Sales from thrillers enable literary authors to do what they love. Literary authors are, he said with a wry smile on his face, ‘the barnacles on our boat.’ The audience loved it. Peter James was asked about how he went from a few thousand copies sold to millions. He replied, ‘You have to live a long time,’ then went on to tell us the ups and downs of his writing career.

The panelists’ stories of rejection and near-disaster reminded us all that the path to success as a writer is rocky, even for the best sellers. Robert Dugoni talked about his early career. His first few books didn’t do well. In fact, he was at ThrillerFest some years ago when his publisher told him he was being dropped. Robert had to reinvent himself as an author. It wasn’t until My Sister’s Grave that he got his big break.

Lynda La Plante stressed that ‘rejection does not mean no.’ Her first Jane Tennison novel was rejected many times because there was a female central character. But she kept going. Peter James’ first book, Dead Letter Drop, only sold 1800 copies in the UK. He switched from action thrillers to detective stories after he was burgled and the police officer who investigated the crime offered Peter help with police procedural information. This led to Peter’s hugely successful DSI Roy Grace series.

My final take-out from this panel is to pay attention to how the great thriller authors write but don’t be afraid to do what your heart is telling you to do. As Lee Child said, ‘a book needs the author’s personal integrity.’ He said, ‘the spark and life can be beaten out of it if you listen to everyone. We are all waiting for the next big thing, not the same thing reinvented.’

If you have any thoughts or questions on this post, please post them on my Facebook or Twitter sites. I’d love to help.

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