If you Don’t Have Time For Your Fans, Do You Deserve Them?

By John Ramsey Miller

We need our fans and readers because they buy our books and not just because without their purchases we’d be negatively impacted financially. A lot of authors say they only owe their readers the best book they can write and nothing else. To a lot of authors, a book sale is merely an arm’s length business transaction. Other authors go out of their way to get close to their fans, surrounding themselves with their readers at every opportunity. I know some authors who see their fan clubs as being their immediate family. And some authors will go out of their way to avoid having their fans be able to get in touch with them.

I appreciate my readers and the fans of my books. Fans are readers who read every book I write. I’d love to have a few million fans who couldn’t live without my next book. The majority of the e-mails I get from readers say they enjoyed one of my books, or are asking when a new book is coming out. I can and do answer every e-mail I get. I guess a lot of authors are afraid they’ll get so many e-mails they can’t address them all without spending hours doing so, that they make themselves very difficult to get in touch with.

See, I think being reasonably accessible to readers and fans is good for one’s career. I don’t see my readers as nuisances, instead as individuals worthy of my attention.

Web sites are sales tools, and they should promote authors, but the best ones do more than that. I think a writer’s web site should have a way for readers to contact the author. Not having that feature seems arrogant to me. I think some authors see being hard to get in touch with creates a mystique, but I don’t think it does. I always smile at the way some authors listed in the “members registries” of professional organizations have their agents phone number as the way to contact them, which I think is a waste of an agent’s time. I guess if you are making your agent enough money they might be happy to become your answering service. My agent would not be at all amused.

Every very, very, busy author I know has a private e-mail address and a business e-mail address. I have four e-mail addresses. One I’ve had for fifteen years and is my “private” box. I have one connected to my web site, which goes directly into my private site. I have another one for my corporation, Burning Rabbit, LLC., and I have a G-mail one for getting into this blog site. I check e-mails when I’m at the computer. I give anybody reading this blog permission to drop me an e-mail any time they like. It may take time to respond, if I’m busy, but I will reply.

I have a busy life aside from writing, and a wonderful family and good friends, dogs and chickens all of which require time. But I want my readers to be able to at least send me messages, to ask me questions related to my books or about writing in general.

Although I might not “owe” a reader anything beyond my book, I think communicating with the people who invest time and money in my stories, and go to the trouble to write me a note is the least I can do. Just don’t come to my house without e-mailing ahead, or better yet, calling. I’m in the book.

Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts

By John Gilstrap

I’m getting a little panicky. Tomorrow (Saturday), I am moderating a panel at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, called Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts, an exploration of the truths and truisms of the prejudice we all have felt at one time or another.

I’m one of those people who takes moderating responsibilities pretty seriously, so as I gather research for the panel (two genre authors and one literary author), I’m finding this all to be much more difficult than I had expected. Defining genres is fairly easy. You’ve got your mysteries, your thrillers, you romances and on and on, each with their expected constructs. Okay, I get that. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rules and some crossover authors, but basically genre is, well, genre.

So, what the heck is literary? I talked to my agent today to bounce my thoughts around and hypothesized that perhaps “literary” could be defined as absence of genre. No, she said, that would be “mainstream.” Literary is something else. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a lot of help when it came to putting a finger on a useful definition of that other something.

Some who post on the Internet posit that while a commercial novel stresses plot, a literary novel stresses other-than-plot. Okay, then explain how Harper Lee or even J.D. Salinger can be considered “literary.”

There are lots of throw-away insulting definitions of “literary,” but those aren’t useful to me in my hour of need. Seriously, what makes the difference? Is it merely a matter of personal taste? Surely it has to be something more that merely “well-written,” because most books fall within a ring or two of that bull’s eye.

If a book fails to move me, can it still be “literary”? If a book does move me, can it be anything but? All input is desperately welcome.

Are you here for the conference?

by Michelle Gagnonconference

Until I received an invite to Bouchercon, I had no idea conferences like that even existed (and until relatively recently, I had no idea how to properly pronounce Bouchercon, either, as it turns out. I have to stop myself from French-ifying it).

How cool, I thought- the opportunity to meet some of my favorite authors and discuss their books with like-minded fans. When I joined some of the online mystery groups and found out that not only could I attend, but I might even be asked to serve on a panel, it was downright mind-boggling. So the year my debut thriller was released, I devoted most of my marketing budget to conference fees, flying everywhere from Anchorage to New York.

Was it worth it?

Well, I had a great time, that’s for sure. The camaraderie at these conferences is fantastic- where else could I spend a night kicking back with Jeffery Deaver and Harlan Coben? But after two years of attending as many as I could afford, I’ve developed some basic parameters:

  • Cost and release dates: My last two books had summer releases: great for conferences, since most of the big ones occur between March and October and they’re clustered in the summer months (I always think of Bouchercon as closing out conference season). THE GATEKEEPER will be released in November, so I’m cutting back dramatically on what I attend since I’ll just end up pitching BONEYARD to people, many of whom already heard about it last year. Cost is always an issue- even if the conference fee isn’t very expensive, once you factor in all the ancillary costs (travel, hotel, etc), each conference runs me at least a grand. And that adds up quickly. Which leads to…

  • What do I hope to get out of it? Mind you, I love hanging out with fellow writers and fans, but it’s hard to justify spending a thousand dollars over a weekend to do that (especially in this economy). So ideally, I hope to get on at least one good panel, and to network with people I haven’t met yet. There’s always a lot of debate on the lists about which conferences are worth attending, and I’m certain that everyone has a different experience. You might sell more books at smaller regional ones where you’re one of a handful of authors, whereas at larger conferences you might get lost in the shuffle. Yet at those big conferences there’s an opportunity to meet domestic and foreign editors, booksellers, and agents, and to get your name out to a larger cross-section of mystery fans.And sometimes the regional conferences are skewed toward local authors, so if you’re not from the area, you might find yourself relegated to the panel on bug detectives (not a well-attended one, in my experience). So it largely depends on what your career goals are at that given moment. Personally, I’m doing the same thing with conference attendance that I do with my financial portfolio: spreading it out between smaller conferences like Left Coast Crime (they had me at “Hawaii”) and big ones like Bouchercon (which I always seem to get a lot out of).

  • Is it a fan conference, or a writing one? Not that writers aren’t fans- we all are, obviously. But some conferences specialize in helping new authors hone their craft and pitch agents- which is invaluable for them, but I’ve discovered that at those conferences, I spend most of my time dodging requests to pass a manuscript on to my agent. I’d much rather go to a true fan conference, where most of the attendees are readers who want to meet their favorite bestselling authors, and who might be persuaded to try a new one as well.

  • Which genre does the conference emphasize? I’ve gone to a few romance conferences, and so far haven’t had much luck with those (although I know my friend Alex Sokoloff has had a much more positive experience). For me, going to RWA felt like starting over again; I didn’t know the lingo, and since romance isn’t a major component of my books, I drew a lot of blank stares. I’m considering giving Romantic Times a shot when it lands a bit closer to home, but flying to Orlando isn’t a possibility for me this April.

Even though I’m cutting back, as of right now I plan on attending Left Coast Crime, LA Times Festival of Books (a cheap flight, and I can stay with friends), Book Passage (local, and no conference fee), and Bouchercon. I’m on the fence about Thrillerfest, since NY is just so darn expensive, and I’m skipping BEA since my ARCs won’t be ready yet. Also, no Edgars for me, sadly, or Sleuthfest (I could really use a trip to Florida, too. Oh well).

On the plus side, this leaves my summer largely free. But I have to wonder what poor Harlan and Jeffery will do without me. So my question for the day is: are you going to any conferences? Which ones, and why?

Tool Guy wants to know: What writing software do you use?

After Clare’s lovely dreamweaver post yesterday, I thought I’d slam us down to earth with some Tool-Guy talk (okay, so I’m a Tool Gal, but honestly. who bothers to check under the belt?).

In my own writing, up until now I have been a fan of a little program called ProsePro. It’s cheap, it plugs into Word, and best of all, it auto-formats my chapter headings, page and chapter numbers so that I don’t have to deal with them. ProsePro has few bells and whistles other than that, but I never cared.

But then in one of my Yahoo groups, someone happened to mention a program called Liquid Story Binder.

Oh. My. God.

I’ve been playing around with this new program, and I’ve discovered so many new bells and whistles that I’ve become a veritable one-woman marching band. Liquid Story Binder has got timelines. It’s got planners. And outline makers. And…and things I haven’t even discovered yet.

Yes folks, I’m in writing Nirvana.

But here’s the thing. My new infatuation with Liquid Story Binder has given me a Hugh Hefner-type roving eye for other software programs that might be out there, waiting to help me plumb the depths of the next great American Thriller Bestseller.

So I’m wondering: What writing software do you use? What is the one feature in that software that you cannot–would not–live without?

The stuff dreams are made of

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m typing this as I watch the Oscars (one of my guilty pleasures) and, as always, I spend most of my time as a sofa-fashionista criticizing the gowns without much thought for the movies. Of course with twin 4 year olds I haven’t seen any of the movies anyway – except for Wall-E (multiple times)…More importantly though, I love how the Oscars always make me believe, at least for one night, that dreams are possible…so I dedicate this blog post to those absolutely ridiculous unattainable dreams that keep us all going. In the spirit of the Oscars I have created my own mock awards and I hope you will make me feel less of a loser and add your own nominations and your own crazy dreams.

Best actor in a dream: My husband still wonders where the hell the fictitious Lord Wrotham came from and I have to confess I do (pathetically) cast my own books as movies…so here’s to Jeremy Northam, Richard Armitage and Colin Firth – if you were all rolled into one and cast in my movie then two of my dreams would come true (to have my books on screen and to have the best, most repressed, hero ever)

Best supporting dream: To be on the cover of Vanity Fair – Hell to be on any page of Vanity Fair…

Best original dreamplay: Act 1: Scene 1: Author opens the Sunday edition of the New York Times and pulls out the book review to the bestseller list. Camera pans to mass pandemonium in the streets.

Best animated dream: To see the Earth from space. This is the reason I push my boys to be obsessed with space travel – and why we have seen Wall-E hundreds of times…(Yay for that Oscar!)

So what are your most outlandish dreams? Go on dress them up in Armani or Valentino and share them with the blog world…or at least with me:)

The McGuffin

by Michael Palmer

The Kill Zone is thrilled to have New York Times Bestselling Author Michael Palmer, M.D., joining us today. Michael can not only cure your ills, he’s also the maestro behind some of Thrillerfest’s most inspired ballads and his books are strong medicine indeed. Read on, as he explains the whys and wherefores of McGuffins…

Greetings from New England everyone……it’s a pleasure to be a guest blogger on so prestigious a site as The Kill Zone…..i have decided to write the way I’m most comfortable—without much punctuation/capitalization……if that style is uncomfortable for some of you, you’ll have to read it through twice……actually, there is another “lesson” here…..this technique is the way I work my way through so-called writer’s block……I just relax, abandon whatever punctuation I want to abandon, as well as grammatical “structure” and write down with minimal edits, the ticker-tape that is passing through my head…..

Michelle G. knows that I enjoy talking about The McGuffin, and asked me to blog some of my thoughts here……i’m going to sort of start at the beginning, and hope I don’t ramble on too long…..

The McGuffin is a noun created by Alfred Hitchcock, and applicable more to suspense stories than most other genres of screen plays and books, although there is certainly some crossover…..parts of some of this material can be found in the writer’s tips section of my website. . . .

when I start my books, I force myself to begin with a carefully constructed “what if” question, which is limited (for clarity’s sake) to no more than 25 words or 2 sentences—sort of a what would you say your book is about to an agent who got on the elevator on the second floor and was getting off at the fourth?? . . . . For example, for my new book, The Second Opinion, the what if is: What if an expert in IT and an expert in electronic medical records began using EMR as a murder weapon? ……sound good?…..it does to me, and I’ve had 14 of 14 books on the times list…..so let’s go with it…..

now, with the what if under my belt, before I decide on a main character (“whose book is this?”), I need to take a crack at answering the question asked in my what if . . . . That answer we will call The McGuffin . . . . it doesn’t have to be the forever answer……I can change it any time I want to . . . . it doesn’t even have to a great McGuffin—just one that works and isn’t something totally ridiculous for this book like that martians are using the information in people’s EMR to choose subjects for kidnapping to their labs . . . . actually, now that I read it over, that McGuffin ain’t too bad . . . the McGuffin doesn’t have to have any tremendous relevance to the plot, but it does have to provide a reasonable answer to the what if question…..

example: in my book Extreme Measures, the what if is simply “What if there was a drug (there is, incidentally) that could make you look like you were dead when you weren’t”…..now that’s a great what if……Poe went to the bank on what ifs like that one . . . . but where’s the story? . . . what would someone want with a drug like that??…..the answer my friends is THE MCGUFFIN……in the case of extreme measures, the baddies want to use the drug to remove homeless people from society to use them for human experimentation (using their organs for transplant would work just as well as a McGuffin, and there are dozens of others) . . . are you getting this?? . . . it’s not such a simple concept, but once you understand it, the mcguffin will support your plot development like a rock….

To summarize: a McGuffin is a plot device which you need to drive the story, but which is changeable and has no real relevance . . . I would not advise choosing your protagonist and starting your prologue without having worked out a decent McGuffin, but it’s certainly possible to try it that way and hope for McGuffin-inspiration along the way . . .

There are examples of McGuffins in all of my books, and in all of Hitchcock’s films……what was Psycho about??—certainly not the $40,000 Janet Leigh stole from her office……she could have stolen plans for a new toaster . . .. and in North by North west, why were the baddies chasing Cary Grant?? Why to steal his McGuffin, of course……I’ll bet only a small percentage of you who have seen and loved North by Northwest can tell me why they were after Cary and Eva Marie – in fact, I’m not sure Hitchock himself could have told you fifteen minutes after he wrote it into his film . . .

So try to have your McGuffin place before you begin your book – it’s much easier that way…..but don’t worry if you decide to change it along the way—it doesn’t matter….just remember, that like any other endeavor, there are A+ McGuffins and C- McGuffins . . . the more organic your McGuffin is to your story, the better . . . but a C- is still passing . . . .

Many readers (although they have never heard the word) think they are reading your book to learn the McGuffin–that is to find out exactly what has been going on–why these baddies are poisoning people to make them look like they are dead when they’re not . . . but the truth is, if you are any good at this writing business, they are flipping pages like mad because you have led them to care–genuinely care–about the characters you have created . . .

What are your all-time favorite McGuffins? I’ve got one in my latest release, THE SECOND OPINION, which is in bookstores now…

Michael Palmer, M.D., is the author of the The Second Opinion, The First Patient, The Fifth Vial, The Society, Fatal, The Patient, Miracle Cure, Critical Judgment, Silent Treatment, Natural Causes, Extreme Measures, Flashback, Side Effects, and The Sisterhood. His books have been translated into thirty-five languages. He trained in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals, spent twenty years as a full-time practitioner of internal and emergency medicine, and is now an associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s physician health program.

Bringing Characters To Life

John Ramsey Miller

To be successful storytellers, authors have to make each character in their story seem like a real person to the reader. Not just the main characters, either. Every character has to ring true and register as individuals, not cardboard cut-outs pushed into a scene to utter words, or provide some action––which could include being a dead body. Good authors pull it off because they pitch each character’s voice so the reader hears them speaking when they are in a scene, or describes them so the reader visualizes them. And it’s never about how much an author says in describing a character, but what they choose to describe, and at what point in the story they do so. What a character says, and how they say it, tells a lot about a character, but a single action can say more about a character than a page of dialog or of physical detail.

An author’s best tool for characterization is observation. Every day, everywhere you go, you see people being themselves. You see mannerisms, you hear dialog, the music and cadence of voice, along with accents, and colloquialisms. You see people reacting to other people, you see the way people dress, how they pose, how they move, how they do a million little and big things. You see body types, how each type moves, how one figure may remind you of an inverted bowling pin, or a crow, or a skeleton covered in dried skin. As you observe, you put the images away for later, and when you are writing flashes come into your mind, or should.

Talented authors watch the world and record what they see, and will later drag their brains for snippets that bring some measure of real to a character. Some authors take pictures, or make notes, for reference, and they have stacks of pictures to root through for ideas, I suppose. Others use their minds alone and file it all away.

Settings are characters too. Pictures will capture style, details, but I find the practice oddly confining. I write from my memory because time adds an ethereal element to those images in my mind. I do use pictures for reference when I need accuracy in a setting that exists, but my best locations come from impressions of places, or several places blended by smell, texture, the way light plays and shadows fall, the tastes, the temperature into a place that only exists in my imagination and on the printed page.

There are a lot of things that separate good and bad writers. Observation is one. The ability to take observations and put them into your work and make them part of your story in a way that makes real the characters and defines them is not easily accomplished. Writing well is another story and I’ll save that for another time.

So, do you watch and file, or do you take notes or pictures?

The Rush to Self-Publish

By John Gilstrap

I’m doing my part to rise to the challenge of 21st century book marketing by actively increasing my Internet footprint. I post on writers boards and try to be as cooperative and patient as I can be. People were helpful to me when I was first starting, so I think I need to invest in the Karmic balance.

A prevalent theme in these sites is an attempt to normalize and legitimize self-publishing, and I genuinely don’t get it. I don’t understand why people would pay the thousands of dollars necessary to make self-publishing happen. If the goal is to get one’s book into the hands of friends and family, a Kinko’s would serve as well as a self-publishing house. If the desired audience is bigger than that, the writer is hosed.

Selling a hundred copies to people who all know where you live is not really publishing, is it? Isn’t the point to sell not tens of copies, but tens of thousands of copies? It’s impossible to get that kind of distribution without a legitimate publisher.

Getting books on distant bookshelves requires infrastructure. Publishers establish a distribution network that involves wholesalers and transporters. After a few months, the books that don’t sell are returned to the publisher for a full refund. Authors are paid cash as an advance against royalties, and the money is theirs to keep even if the publisher fails to sell a single copy of the book. As compensation for that risk, the publisher keeps the lion’s share of the book’s cover price.

For self-published authors, none of that infrastructure is in place. Many bookstores refuse to stock self-published books because they cannot return unsold stock. If they do agree to stock a self-published book it’s probably because the visiting author is a good salesman. That’s all well and good, but who’s writing the next book (and probably working the day job) while the author is out there pounding the pavement?

I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot of crap out there from traditional publishers, but in every case, at least there’ve been some editorial hurdles. First, a literary agent blesses the book, and then it’s passed to an acquiring editor who then has to get approval from others before making an offer to buy the book. After that, there are several more editing passes before the book is finally printed and distributed.

Justly or not, it’s easy to see how self-published material is perceived by booksellers as being too undercooked for general consumption. I’m not saying they’re right necessarily, but the perception is understandable.

A popular hypothesis on the writers’ boards touts the notion that traditional publishers are resistant to new talent, and that writers have no choice but to publish on their own. It’s ridiculous. Publishers live off of new talent. They anxiously await the next great well-told story.

I think there’s undeniably a place for self-publishing. The history of a certain military unit, for example, or the story of how someone’s grandfather made his fortune against all odds are tales that will resonate with a certain definable group that is almost certainly large enough to recoup the author’s investment, but nowhere near large enough to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher. But it’s not a route to bestsellerdom.

What I worry about is my sense that too many people enter into those contracts with inflated expectations that are underwritten my greedy businessmen who know how to feed off the desires of frustrated artists. For the foreseeable future, the two publishing routes will never be seen as “equal,” anymore than a community theater production of a play will be considered the equivalent of Broadway.

My Favorite Part

by Michelle Gagnongirl on bike

It’s done.

Four months of writing, four weeks of editing, 100,000 words total  (after approximately 10,000 words were trimmed). Three working titles (and roughly a hundred others considered and discarded), three major characters whose names changed from one draft to the next, and two alternate endings.

And finally last night, just a few hours past my deadline, I sent the completed manuscript off to my editor. Mind you, there are a few things left to do (for example, I have to go through the copy- and line-edited drafts in a few weeks). But by and large, the nitty-gritty work of writing THE GATEKEEPER is complete.

This is, hands down, my favorite part of the writing process. I dread staring at the blank page, and getting mired in what Louise Ure calls the "saggy middle," when it feels like you’re never going to actually finish the darn book. And even after the rough draft is finished and polished into something that’s largely presentable, there’s still self-doubt to wrestle with. After hitting "send" I invariably spend weeks on pins and needles waiting for my editor to respond, convinced I’ll receive an email deploring the story and the writing, insisting that I scrap it and start over (this hasn’t happened yet, but you never know).

But today, ah today- the first day after handing it in, when the editor has given the all-clear and the residual stress of meeting the deadline has dissipated and I find myself facing an entire afternoon with nothing to do (well, nothing besides writing this post, cleaning my house, and paying bills, that is). This is when it finally sinks in. I’ve finished my fifth book (for those of you keeping track at home, yes, I did say five: it will only be my third in print, since two others never made the cut). Ahead of me lies months of marketing and everything that entails (designing bookmarks, calling/emailing bookstores, self-flagellation, etc etc etc).

Today I can just sit back and enjoy the fact that for the first time in six months, I don’t have a book hanging over my head. To clarify: yes, I know I’m extraordinarily lucky to  have a contract and deadlines- and I’m eternally grateful for that, every day I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Still, that does mean I have to produce a book on a regular basis. And as I can attest from my journalism days, even if you love the assignment, having to write it in a specific time frame makes it an obligation. Some days it’s fun, others it’s work: every stage of the process has its benefits and drawbacks. But for nearly six months, I’ve tended to little else, as the stacks of paper and other detritus scattered around my house can attest.

It’s comparable to the first day of summer vacation. You know September is just around the corner, but for the moment, you can just get on your bike and go anywhere. Down the line there will be plenty of other homework assignments (new deadlines), grades (reviews, both good and bad), and field trips (tour stops). But today, you’re free. And you know what? I think my house is going to stay dirty and the bills will be unpaid for just one more day. It’s too rainy for a bicycle ride, but it feels like the perfect day for a matinee, and I haven’t been to see a film in forever. So today’s discussion question is: what should I see?


Anatomy of a Thriller

By Joe Moore

One of the author panels I’ll be on at the upcoming MWA SleuthFest is Anatomy of a Thriller (the other is Supernatural Sleuths). I’ll be sharing the panel with literary agent Nicole Kenealy (Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency) and publisher Benjamin Leroy (founder of Bleak House Books). So to follow in Kathryn’s footsteps from her post yesterday, let’s continue discussing thrillers and what makes them so thrilling.

anatomy First, what is a thriller and how does it differ from a mystery?

Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.

A thriller is just the opposite; the book begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.

So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.

1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving  submarines, Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully built in tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.

2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let’s say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you’ve seen both of those movies, you’ll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.

But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.

What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That’s the outlandish concept of Benchley’s thriller JAWS. What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.

3. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown’s example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone’s standards.

4. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.

5. Multiple POV. In mysteries, it’s common to have the story told through the eyes of a limited number of characters, sometimes only one. All that can change in a thriller. Most are made up of a large cast of characters, each telling a portion of the story through different angles. Some thrillers are so complex in their POVs that you really need a scorecard. But even with multiple POVs, it’s vital to never let the reader lose sight of whose story it is. There should be only one protagonist.

6. Exotic Settings. Again, in most murder mysteries, the location is usually limited to a particular city, town or locale. 731 But a thriller can and usually is a globetrotting event. In my latest thriller, THE 731 LEGACY, co-written with Lynn Sholes, the story takes place in, amount other locations, a medieval castle in one of the former Eastern Bloc countries of the Soviet Union and ends up in Pyongyang, North Korea. Throughout the series, our stories have taken the reader to a lost city in the Peruvian Andes, a remote church in Ethiopia reputed to contain Ark of the Covenant, the Secret Archives of the Vatican, newly discovered Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, inside the royal private residence of Buckingham Palace, secret tunnels below the Kremlin, and many other places most of us will never get to visit. Exotic locations are a mainstay of the thriller genre.

Like any generic list, there will always be exceptions and limitations. But in general, these are the elements you’ll usually find in mainstream commercial thrillers. But the biggest and most important element of all is that a thriller should thrill you. If it doesn’t increase your pulse rate, keep you up late, and leave you wanting more, it probably isn’t a thriller.

Are there any characteristics of a thriller not on my list? What do you look for in a good thriller?