ITW Thriller Awards

By Joe Moore

DSC_0373 (Small) It’s Thriller Awards submission time again. ITW announced the winners of the 2009 awards in July during ThrillerFest. Jeffery Deaver won Best Thriller for THE BODIES LEFT BEHIND. Tom Rob Smith took home Best First Novel for CHILD 44. Alexandra Sokoloff grabbed the Best Short Story award for THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.

ITW_Award_black_72dpi As previously discussed on this blog, the hard cover and paperback originals were lumped together into Best Thriller for 2009. For the most part, this was based upon the belief that a good book is a good book no matter what the format.

For 2010, things have reverted back to separating the hardbacks from the soft. So the categories are Best Hard Cover original, Best Paperback Original, Best First Novel, and Best Short Story.

ITW has announced the call for submissions. Competition is open to anyone who meets the requirements which include being published by one of the organization’s recognized publishers. You don’t have to be an ITW member to enter. A complete set of rules can be found on the Big Thrill website.

Thrillerfest D3 '09 (Alan Jacobson) (194) [640x480]For a look at the 2009 Thriller Awards Banquet and ThrillerFest conference, visit the ITW photo gallery.

Now that the Thriller Awards are back to separating the hard cover from the soft, do you think there’s a preconceived prejudice between the two? In other words, if a book is published in hard cover, do you think readers consider it to be “better” that one released as a paperback? Or is it true that a good book is a good book?

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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?

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Judging a book by its cover

By Joe Moore

My co-writer Lynn Sholes and I have been very fortunate to have our books published in different languages. Although most of the foreign covers are similar to the domestic versions, we’ve had some interesting surprises along the way. Inside the book, it’s the same story just translated into another language, but outside is a different story altogether. It’s obvious that each publisher must know and market to their unique audience. And in many cases, there’s a huge difference in the visual presentation and interpretation of our stories. Here are a few unique examples:

Our first book in the Cotten Stone series is THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY (2005) with a central theme of human cloning. The original cover is on the left followed by Spanish (Latin American), Russian and Bulgarian.

tgc-coves-1

 

 

 

 

The main object on the English cover is the ancient symbol of the Knights Templar whose descendents are the bad guys in the book. The Spanish version looks like a space ship taking off while the upside down skull chalice is very cool in the Russian cover. I have no idea what’s going on in the Bulgarian version.

Our second in the series is THE LAST SECRET (2006). It deals with quantum mechanics and the ability to be in two places at once. The English cover is followed by Greek, Estonian and Czech.

tls-covers1c

 

 

 

 

On the English cover is the emblem of the Venatori, the secret intelligence gathering arm of the Vatican and the oldest spy organization in the world. On the Greek version are a lot of sinister looking people standing around in front of the Venatori shield. Not sure what they’re doing but it appears serious. The Estonian cover is kind of vague, and the symbol on the Czech cover looks Aztec or Mayan but your guess is as good as mine as to what it means.

Number three is THE HADES PROJECT (2007) about a plot to use a quantum computer to wreak havoc on the world’s infrastructure. The domestic cover is followed by the Lithuanian, Bulgarian and Slovakian versions.

thp-covers1

 

 

 

 

The symbol on the English cover is a pentagram because there’s a lot of devilish stuff going on inside. I think the Lithuanian cover is just plain weird like a strange Southwestern fire god, while the Bulgarian is spooky, and the Slovakian looks conservative and regal. Not sure why there’s a compass in the picture.

Number four is THE 731 LEGACY (2008), a scary story about state-sponsored terrorism and the reassembling of an ancient retrovirus that is carried in all human DNA. Here’s the English cover followed by Greek and Dutch (a bestseller in the Netherlands).
 731-covers1

 

 

 

 

The domestic cover shows a modified Japanese war flag since Unit 731 was a WWII Japanese organization that performed terrible atrocities against their enemies. The Greek cover looks like "Stairway to Heaven" and the Dutch publisher decided to change the title to THE KYOTO VIRUS, although they did keep the Japanese flag in the background.

So can we judge a book by its cover? Each publisher must understand their market and audience, and know what kind of visual impression is needed to make a customer pick up a book. I like all the versions of our covers for different reasons and I think it’s really interesting to see how our stories are interpreted in various languages and cultures with the cover art. But most of all, I really like that Russian skull chalice.

If you’ve had foreign language versions of your books published, was the art work similar to your domestic version or did the artist take off into La-La-Land? What was your reaction when you saw the covers?

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“The envelope, please…”

by Michelle Gagnon

Congrats to Ann Littlewood, commenter extraordinaire and winner of our $50 gas card prize! And now, on to today’s controversial subject…


PBO Award, we hardly knew ye…

There’s been an interesting debate recently regarding changes to next year’s Thriller Awards.

Basically, here’s the scoop: the ITW (International Thriller Writers) organization has eliminated the Paperback Original (PBO) category. Now everyone (aside from debut authors) will pit their books against each other for the Best Novel award.

I’m actually surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry. PBO is a treasured category, in that it gives writers who aren’t necessarily guaranteed a spot on the bestsellers’ lists an opportunity for some recognition.

Writers and reviewers weighed in on both sides. Some claimed this was a fantastic decision, that a “Best Novel” category where only hardcovers are eligible makes the “Best PBO” look like a red-headed stepchild. It should be the content that matters, not the format, the argument goes. Which is a valid point, and one I always wondered about: why isn’t it simply, “Best Hardcover,” since nearly every other awards category is defined by format?

And many who chimed in said they trusted their fellow writers to treat the binding on submissions with a blind eye.

But just to play devil’s advocate, here are some things to consider:

  1. Bias

Allison Brennan made an interesting analogy based on her previous work in the legislature. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that when you wanted to talk to voters about the economy, you used a man as your spokesman; if you were discussing education, a woman. Because even when people think they’re completely fair-minded, there are inevitably some biases lurking in our subconscious.

There’s a chance that authors might prove to be more, not less, biased when it comes to formatting. After all, we understand how the publishing industry works. Sure, we acknowledge that there’s an arbitrary element to what kind of cover ends up on a book, and some publishers tend to favor one format over another. But given a choice, most authors would probably opt for a hardcover deal. It’s easier to get reviews, and collectors value them more highly. Also, since the production costs are higher, there’s a chance the publisher might throw some marketing money behind the book. These are all things someone who’s spent some time in the publishing trenches knows.

The average layperson, on the other hand, has no idea what the different formats mean, they just know that certain books are more expensive. But while they wouldn’t necessarily assume that a hardcover is superior to a paperback, an author just might. Even if they don’t think they’re biased.

  1. History

I asked during the discussion if anyone could remember the last time a paperback has been nominated for a Best First Edgar (since that category traditionally pits hardcovers against paperbacks, it’s a good reference point). I was curious, having submitted my debut thriller for consideration despite the fact that in recent memory I couldn’t recall a PBO garnering a nomination (if you know of one, drop me a line). Thanks to a bout of insomnia, I ended up going through the winners of Best First Novel Edgars (and believe me, I have discovered the cure for sleeplessness—this exercise could put Ambien out of business for good).

I got all the way back to 1971 before finally drifting off. For at least the past 37 years, no paperback has ever won an Edgar for Best First Novel. Next time I can’t sleep I’ll trudge through every nominee in that category, but I suspect the story will be the same. We all want to believe our books are being judged on a level playing field. But if that’s the case, then is it really true that for the past thirty-seven years, a hardcover was always superior to every paperback submitted?

  1. Why awards matter

When I’m writing a book, the last thing on my mind is whether or not it’ll end up being nominated for an award. I doubt any author is envisioning that as they tap away at their keyboards (although I have been known on occasion to accept imaginary Grammy awards in the shower. But you should hear my singing voice in there, it’s pure Mariah Carey.)

But we can’t pretend that awards don’t matter. Even my local bookstore (which has on occasion been downright hostile to genre fiction) mounts an Edgar display every spring. Harlan Coben has credited his 1997 Best PBO Edgar Award with keeping his career afloat, in that it persuaded his publisher to stick with him in the face of declining sales.

And again, I believe that a layperson couldn’t tell you the difference between an Edgar and a Barry if their life depended on it. But if they see, “____ Award Winning Novel” on the cover, they’re more likely to select that book over another one. Hey, it won an award, it must be a good read. So eliminating a category reduces the chance that five other books might garner some attention. IMHO, that is not a good thing.

  1. Apples and Oranges

There is inevitably some randomness to award distribution. Books on the whole are subjective little beasties, after all. And depending on the composition of the judging committee, some years noir may be favored over cozies, or vice versa. And really, how do you compare the two? Does the best romantic suspense novel trump the best paranormal? How do you weigh books written in only loosely related genres against each other? There are great books produced every year, across the board, in all formats. Yet it does seem that the more “serious” books (which tend to be hardcovers) have an edge. This is precisely why the Golden Globes feature separate categories for comedy and drama; it gives the comedies a shot, when traditionally they’re overlooked.

The RWA’s RITA Awards acknowledge this issue by having separate categories for Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, and Romantic Suspense, among other subgenres. And these awards are generally acknowledged to be the romance publishing industry’s highest distinction.


  1. Multiple categories dilute the significance (or “Brand,” if you will) of the award

This claim I really don’t agree with. If anything, changing which books are eligible for an award on an annual basis would seem to threaten its legitimacy far more than keeping or adding categories (not to mention being incredibly confusing for authors and publishers). For example, last year my debut thriller was not eligible in the Best First category since it was a mass market paperback. The year before (2006) it would have been in the running, and it would again this year (2008). But in 2007 it was thrown into the mix with every other paperback author, regardless of whether they were on book one or twenty. Random? Absolutely. I’m glad they reverted to a true “Best First” category, with every debut eligible regardless of format. You only get one first novel, after all.

  1. “The Thrillies”

Personally, I’m all for having your more serious “Thriller Awards,” with gravitas, pomp, and circumstance. But after handing those out, why not have a little fun? Present an alternate set of awards and call them the “Thrillies.” Give a “Best Psycho” trophy (a knife, perhaps?) for the most terrifying villain, or a “Best Sex” prize for the best sex scene (I’ll let you use your imagination when picturing the prize for that one.)
I realize that will probably never happen, but it’s fun to consider. I’ve always thought that the Thriller Awards should be to the Edgars what the Golden Globes are to the Oscars: more entertaining and light-hearted, with someone throwing up in the bathroom by the end of the show. The Golden Globes achieve that by passing out more awards, not less (and by serving copious amounts of liquor). And I
don’t think an actor has ever turned one down because they felt having more categories diminished the significance.

I love the ITW organization, and have volunteered for it because I’m such a believer in their mission and goals. But in this instance I believe they’ve made a mistake.

There are many strong and legitimate opinions on both sides of this debate, and I’d love to hear them. Plus, if anyone has a spare Grammy hanging around, I’m in the market for one…

(my imaginary Grammy)


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Stay tuned for Killer Sundays! Upcoming guest schedule for the Kill Zone

We’re pleased to be hosting some great guest authors on Sundays in the near future, and we’ll be adding more to our guest list. So stay tuned for Sundays with the Killers!

Here’s our current guest schedule:

Sunday, August 24: Tim Maleeny http://www.timmaleeny.com/

Sunday, Sept. 7: Alafair Burke http://www.alafairburke.com/

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Welcome to…THE KILL ZONE!!!

By Michelle Gagnon

That sounds so ominous, doesn’t it?

So I drew the short straw for the inaugural Kill Zone posting. It’s a lot of pressure. I feel the need to write something weighty and momentous, a breathtaking post befitting the gravitas of a blog launch.

After a week of pondering, I’ve still got nothing. So in lieu of providing an illuminating perspective on an important issue, I’m going to do a whiny wrap-up of my recent book tour instead. With any luck, John and Clare have come up with something more impressive for their turn. A person can always hope, right?

And away we go…

My Book Tour, aka “Death March with Signing Pen”

Just to clarify, I’m not really complaining. I’m know that I’m lucky to have books published, luckier still that people appear to be reading them, and that foolish booksellers allow me into their stores armed with my bookmarks and refrigerator magnets. I love bookstores in general, and I’m a shameless performer, so the opportunity to get up in front of people and pontificate is something you’ll have to pry from my cold dead hands. That said, as I enter week four of my book tour (which I’ve officially dubbed “death march with signing pen”), I have come to notice the downside. I’m truly a homebody at heart; I love spending ninety percent of my time locked indoors with little but a keyboard for company. So being gone for extended periods of time is not only wearing, it makes me start missing things…

1. Food: I have no idea how a person manages to eat dinner during these tours. I leave my house around 5PM to get to most of these events, and then I generally get home around 10 or 11PM. Most local restaurants have closed by the time I’ve finished reading, and when I get home I don’t have the energy to assemble a bowl of cereal. Seriously, I haven’t had a hot meal in weeks. I’m wasting away. I’ve developed a theory that this is how Lee Child remains so svelte.

2. Television: I’m way behind on my programming. I’ve actually had to delete things from my Tivo UNWATCHED to make space for more critical shows. Which presents a horrible conundrum for me: though I have yet to watch the HD version of “The Science of Sleep,” I had intended to watch it someday. Will it be on again in the future? Can I really risk deleting it in favor of an episode of Project Runway?
Which leads to my next concern: as far behind as I am on my regular series, I’m completely in the dark when it comes to reality shows. This might not seem grave to some of you, but when my husband has a better idea of who might win “So You Think You Can Dance” than I do, things have gone horribly awry.

3. Company: I can pretty much guarantee that if you do more than a few tour stops with the same author, the two of you will quickly adopt the worst attributes of an old married couple. So it was with Simon Wood and I. Early on, we found each other charming. He chuckled at my “accidentally killed off my main character” story, I gasped during his “trapped at an underground fight club in Tulsa” anecdote. But the bloom quickly faded, and by week three we were sniping at each other, rolling our eyes, and generally behaving like the main characters in “The War of the Roses.”

4. Family: Granted, this should have come first. You know things are getting bad when your kid stops recognizing you. All right, I’m exaggerating (I am a writer, after all) but after being gone for five days, then heading out for a different corner of the Bay Area every night, it does become a little surreal. Plus, I reflexively tried to sign my name on my toddler the other day. Not good.

5. Beds: Of course, at times the beds have been the least of my problems. There was, for example, the Days Inn behind the strip club in San Diego, with all sorts of sketchy characters lurking in the corridor outside my room. But a month of sleeping on strange beds does tend to wreak havoc on my spine.

6. Flights: I’m not a nervous flyer; in fact I used to look forward to getting on a plane and going somewhere exotic. Now that I’ve spent the past four weekends getting on and off planes, I have a few…let’s call them helpful suggestions…for the airlines. For instance, why not take off on time? I swear, I haven’t been on a trip in over six months that didn’t experience a two-to-five hour delay at the airport (or better yet, on the tarmac). And hey, is it really so difficult to have some form of nourishment available? I’ll pay for it; I would just love to be able to purchase that twenty-dollar mealy sandwich on the plane if I didn’t have the opportunity to grab one during my two mile-long sprint from gate 1 to gate 50 as I changed flights. And while we’re on the subject, consider turning off the seatbelt sign from time to time (an especially good idea during that three hour-long stint on the tarmac). When the person next to you maintains a running monologue on the size of their bladder, as the flight crew flips through celebrity rags and growls at anyone attempting to get out of their seats, it becomes abundantly clear that the glory days of civilian jetsetting have drawn to a tragic close.

So, anyone else have war stories to share? Best comment receives a signed edition of my first thriller THE TUNNELS. If you don’t win, console yourself by signing up for my newsletter at www.michellegagnon.com and I’ll toss your name in the hat for an Amazon Kindle, iPod Shuffle, Starbucks gift certificates, and other fabulous prizes.

Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller The Tunnels was an IMBA bestseller. Her latest book, Boneyard, depicts a cat and mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she frantically watches television in an attempt to make room on her tivo drive.

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