Friday, June 26, 2015

Thrillers and How to Write Them

Last weekend I took an online webinar, as they call them, on thriller writing, sponsored by Writers' Digest. It was quite entertaining, and may even have been helpful. Time alone will tell whether my two hundred dollars was worth spending to resuscitate my perishing writing career. I know I can thrill people if I put my mind to it, but it's possible that I need professional help. Thrilling people, I mean. Professional writing help.

The webinar consisted of six presentations lasting about an hour and a half, one of which blew up fifteen minutes in, and two of which I had to miss, since they took place while I was at work at the Marshall House. But I can see them later today, when the webinar people send me the links. For those of you who don't know what a webinar is, and I didn't, before I undertook this, here's how it went:

First thing I did was to log on to the link they sent me. That presented me with instructions to download the software to put the webinar on my computer. The webinar appeared in two panels, one to show the video portion, one to play the audio while displaying the name of the person talking. You could type questions into a box. You could not speak to the presenter through the computer microphone, not for this webinar, though it may be possible for others.

Then came the presentations.

Hallie Ephron gave her usual bracing talk on how to give your story forward momentum. I have my notes right here, in case you've never heard her. My notes say, open with an unanswered question, use a hook-and-grab scene structure with rising stakes and a ticking clock, put your major plot twists at the end of Act 1, the middle of Act 2, and the end of Act 2, and go to the Conklins' for meatloaf at six-thirty. (Wait, that was when the Conklins called in the middle of the presentation.) And a bunch of other notes. I took more notes during her talk than anyone else's, because she had so much useful stuff to say. I'm not going to tell you all of it because it's her presentation, and also because I don't have the space.

The next presenter, William Martin, talked about historical fiction, which is what I write these days. Instead of giving a Powerpoint presentation he spoke into the camera in his computer, positioned so as to give us a nice view of his handsome and orderly office. He mentioned that the office, and the house it was attached to, were paid for with the proceeds of his writing, but he was such a nice guy that I couldn't quite bring myself to hate him for that. Particularly not after he went on to tell us many useful things, not only about building a good story but about research. People want to be educated as well as entertained, he said, which is why you want to get the details right. Never stop doing research, he said. Read the contemporary newspapers. Walk the ground. I felt inspired.

Larry Brooks, the next speaker, began to tell us about putting the maximum thrills in your thriller, whereupon his cell phone failed; with no audio, all we could do was watch his cursor flailing ineffectually across the screen, where his PowerPoint presentation was still being displayed. But not to worry. I can catch up on everything today, when the folks from Writers' Digest will email me a link to his completed presentation.

I missed the first two presentations on Saturday. They looked good, but I had to go to work, as I mentioned. I'll get them later. The third and last was all about voice. It was presented by D. P. Lyle, who read from a number of famous and well-written books, illustrating and commenting on the voice of each author. I see here that I wrote almost nothing down about this one, being mesmerized by his speaking voice, beautiful, with a touch (or more than a touch) of the South. I did write it down when he said that knowledge, experience, and confidence will form your writing voice, and you must read a lot and write a lot to develop these things. Respect the reader, he said. I can do that.

So I'm off to write my thriller, in a special thriller voice that I will work on for the occasion, perhaps stealing it from renowned Dan Brown. Or not.

This morning a book came in the mail that gave me a genuine thrill. I can't remember when I was so excited about anything. It was this: the 1915 yearbook of the New York Yacht Club. Von Rintalen lived there, you see, while he was spying for the Germans in New York City. I had to know: Was he listed in the membership? Not as von Rintalen, as it turns out, but rather as plain Franz Rintalen. He had been a member since 1906. Which means that when he came to New York in 1915 to blow up all the ammunition destined for the British, he had been there before, and indeed had already established himself as a person of high social position.

A bonus in the little book are the many pages of colored private signal flags, the flags of schooners, single masted vessels, yawls, steamers, power boats, and launches belonging to various members of the club, as well as flags for members who were non-yacht owners. What names. A roster of Waspdom. Tarrant Putnam. Percy R. Pyne. G. W. Quintard, 3d. (Franz Rintalen had no private signal flag. Tells you something.)

To possess an artifact like this from the period you're working on is the next best thing to walking the ground. I'm terribly excited. Thrilled, in fact.

© 2015 Kate Gallison


  1. Kate, I'm thrilled on your behalf! Writer's Digest does some excellent things for writers - and I swear by the integrity of Chuck Sambuchino! So! May the gods of the writing universe beam upon you ! We'll look for your name in the New York Times of Best Fiction - soon! tjstraw

  2. P.S. This gives me ideas.... we women should each have our own private signal flag - and carry it waving on our signature purses... tjs