Saturday, May 24, 2014

My interview with Jeffrey Deaver

International bestselling novelist Jeffrey Deaver has had a varied background as a journalist, folk singer and lawyer. His first novel, Manhattan is My Beat, was published in 1988. More than two dozen of his have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including The New York Times and The Times of London. His books have sold in 150 countries and translated into 25 languages.

Jeff, have your past careers served you well as a novelist?

My other careers have always been ways to allow me to make a living while I went after my goal of becoming a full-time novelist. I began publishing various stories and poems in my teens and finally published my first novel in my thirties. Journalism taught me to research, and law, curiously, was helpful in organizing my books—I outline fanatically.

When and where did your writing begin and did your early environment influence your work?

I began writing when I was about 11. I wrote my first novel then (really a short story, though I called it a novel). I was a nerd when I was young and thus I was drawn to reading and writing. My parents were both creative and encouraged me. I was reading mainstream novels, thrillers and fantasy mostly, at a very young age.

How did Kathryn Dance come into being and why did you decide to write about a female California Bureau of Investigation agent and body language expert?

I realized that I had many ideas for what I thought would be compelling thrillers, but they weren't appropriate for my evidence-driven forensics novels (my Lincoln Rhyme series). So I decided to create a character who was the opposite of Lincoln: A woman, with children, who lives in California. She would have little interest in the science of crime solving, but rather focus on the human factor—body language, linguistics, interrogation and interviewing. The psychology of crime. I've been very pleased at how popular she's become. Even readers who love Lincoln Rhyme appreciate Kathryn's skills. After all, they are friends.

You’ve won or been nominated in a number of countries for too many writing awards to list here. Which one means the most to you and do awards translate into bigger sales?

I think I'm most pleased that my stand-alone, The Bodies Left Behind, was named the novel of the year by the prestigious International Thriller Writers organization. It was a book that I spent a great amount of time on and was challenging to write—it contains one of the best twists I've been able to work into my fiction. As far as sales go, certainly awards get readers' attention, but in the end it's a book quality that dictates high or low sales.

Which of your mystery thrillers required the most research and do you have CBI agents at the ready to call when you need information?

Garden of Beasts took the most research. It's set in Berlin in 1936, and I wanted the details and atmosphere to be 100% accurate. Apparently it was, since a fan who escaped Germany in the late '30s reported to me that it was the most accurate—and moving--novel about that time that he'd ever read. Regarding research, I tend not to use living, breathing sources much. I prefer book and internet research, since when you talk to practitioners, you tend to skew the story to tell theirs; I want to make sure to tell my story.

Your Roadside Crosses novel, third in your high tech trilogy, features a teenage boy bent on revenge for real or imagined abuse, and is chilling. Did your antagonist evolve from Columbine and the University of Virginia killings? And why the crosses along the highway foretelling his planned murders?

I was actually inspired to write Roadside Crosses by another tragic incident: the teenage girl in St. Louis who was "befriended" by the mother of her former friend, posing as a boyfriend. He then told her that the world would be better off without her—and she killed herself. I wanted to write about the responsibility of bloggers and the social networking phenomenon.

Were you pleased or disappointed in the screen adaptations of HBO’s A Maiden’s Grave starring James Gardner and/or Universal Studios’ adaptation of The Bone Collector starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie? Did you take part in any way in the filming?

My theory about movies is that I respect the process of filmmaking very much, but I don't want to have anything to do with it. My skill—and pleasure—is in writing thrillers, not scripts. I don't have a lot of patience for authors who complain about Hollywood's treatment of their books. How many of them have sent the check's back in protest? None that I know of.

What was it like to play a corrupt lawyer on your favorite soap opera, “As the World Turns?”

Exhausting! I've never worked so hard in my life. I have great respect for actors too, as I do for scriptwriters and directors, as I mentioned above. But, despite the fact I love to experience new things, I'll probably hang up my acting hat for the time being.

What’s your writing environment like and your schedule? Do you outline or wing it?

I work eight to ten hours a day, six days a week. I do at least one book a year, and so I work even when I'm on book tour (which generally amounts to about three months every year). Yes, I outline. I spend eight months outlining each book. And the outlines end up being about 150-200 pages. Thrillers of the sort I write must be structured. It's a waste of time to start writing and hope for inspiration along the way. Pilots and surgeons don't wait for inspiration. Why should authors?

Advice to fledgling mystery/thriller writers?

Write the sort of book you enjoy reading. Outline the books of your favorite authors (the successful ones only!) and study how they create their fiction. Write your own outline. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. Ignore rejection. Keep writing; never stop!

Jeff's website is

(Excertped from my book, Mysterious Writers)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Are You a Bibliophile?

I confess. I’m a bibliophile.

I love books. Old books, new books, signed books and rare books, especially mystery novels. They're among my most prized possessions. I literally have thousands of books and they’re in every room. We’ve run out of bookcases and many of the ones that have already been read are in boxes, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. I still have some from childhood (back in the dark ages).

Another bibliophile, Anne Fadiman, wrote that people who revere first editions and books with lovely covers, and who worry about readers defiling them by writing in the margins, are what she calls “courtly lovers.” She also said that readers “who split open books as if they were ripe fruit, who dog-ear pages and use paperbacks as table mats, are carnal lovers." Which of Fadiman’s categories do you fit into?

I dread the day I have to move because it would cost a fortune to move all these books. And what a backbreaking job that would be. I'm reminded of the time I interviewed Louis L’Amour at his southern California home. His huge office contained floor to ceiling hinged bookcases. Behind them were identical bookcases filled with some 10,000 books. I’m sure he was a fellow bibliophile. I was happy to find one of my own books hiding there on one of the lower shelves next to a copy of Riders of the Purple Sage.

I felt sorry for L’Amour’s housekeeper. Have you ever tried dusting 10,000 books? No wonder librarians are always sneezing. Even my dog sneezes when I take out my swivel duster. Not that I dust mine every day. Writers need time away from housework, but the temptation to caress my books while I take a break at my desk is irresistible. They’re stacked on both sides of my computer and all along the top in built-in bookcases, just sitting there waiting for me to take them down and open them. Or just run my fingers along their spines. It makes me tingle just thinking about it. Western writer Elmer Kelton once told me that his book collection seemed to breed overnight. Bibliophiles are a sensual lot.

Just when it seemed as though a bedroom would have to be converted into a library, ebook readers came along during the '90s and I bought one when my own books were published electronically. I've since gone through the clumsy originals as well as Kindles, a Nook and an iPad, but there's still nothing like holding a print book in my hands, smelling the aroma of ink and rifling through the pages as though on a treasure hunt.

Which format do you prefer and would you trade print books for exclusive electronic reading?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Art of Writing Suspense

Centuries ago storytelling could be a dangerous pastime. Tales were told around a fire and, if the storyteller droned on and bored his listeners, they either fell asleep or they killed him, according to Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing. Fortunately for modern writers, the worst thing that can happen is that the reader will put your book aside and never pick it up again. So, if your goal is to have your work read, don’t write the boring stuff that readers tend to skip over. That’s usually descriptive passages that should be shoveled in lightly and gradually, not all in one lump. Or it can be tedious dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot’s race to the finish line. Editors call it padding and ask that writers delete it, or worse yet, they reject the manuscript and return it.

Suspense is the most important element in plotting. Keep your reader reading and unable to put the book down. How many times have you read until two or three in the morning because you couldn’t possibly go to sleep without first learning the plot’s resolution? And then couldn’t fall asleep because the book was so good that it continually replayed in your mind?

No matter how unique your style or intriguing your characters, if you don’t pique your reader’s curiosity and keep her hooked until the end of the story, you might as well be the campfire storyteller with a club over your head. Keep your reader in suspense with occasional rest periods so that he can catch his breath while you spoon in a little description and backstory. While writing, always keep your eye on the finish line and make the race to the book’s conclusion as suspenseful as possible.

The greatest compliment a writer can receive is for someone to say, “I couldn’t put the book down.” How many times have you said that, yourself? And what was it about that book that kept you reading? Nine times out of ten, you’ll say it was suspense and your own curiosity that kept you reading to learn what was going to happen next. Suspense, according to Stein, is the strong glue between reader and writer. And, of course, caring about the characters and wanting them to resolve their problems.

The word suspense comes from the Latin word “to hang.” So consider yourself an executioner who takes your reader to the edge of a cliff. Once there you hang your protagonist by his fingertips. It’s not your job to feel sorry for the cliff hanger or to immediately rescue him. Leave him hanging until his fingers are slipping and he’s about to fall into a deep, dark canyon. Suspense builds as the reader anxiously waits for someone to rescue the hero, but it’s not happening yet; or the villain is stomping on the hero’s fingers and the reader wants him to stop. That’s an exaggerated example of suspense, but one that a writer can use it to his advantage.

There are various forms of suspense: potential or immediate danger to your protagonist, unwanted confrontations, a fear of what’s about to happen, and a crisis that needs to be met head on. A writer's job is to set up a situation or problem that needs a resolution, but without an immediate answer. A detective is a novel killer if he picks up a clue in chapter two and says, “Ah ha, I know who this button belongs to, I’ll contact the police and have her arrested for the murder.” Unless, of course, you’re writing a short story or very short novella. Stretch out the suspense until your reader forsakes all else to finish your book.