Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Author as Terrorist #3: Crossing a Line

How do terrorists terrify? By being willing to commit disturbing acts that decent human beings would never consider. Aspiring suspense writer: Go thou and do likewise (at least in print).

It’s hard to create tension if your readers can sense that there are lines you won’t cross. Once they know that you won’t let anything really bad happen to “good” characters, most of the suspense drains out of what should be tense scenes. They know the sweet schoolteacher in the car crash will be okay, the deranged husband of the vulnerable young woman won’t actually kill her, and so on. How can you keep that from happening?

Fortunately, solving this problem is simple: Cross some lines. Kill the schoolteacher. Murder the innocent wife. While you’re at it, go ahead and kill the deranged husband too.

Are you crazy or just stupid? you ask. What kind of author would write a book like that? What kind of publisher would publish it? And what on Earth would readers think? I’m going to duck the first question and move straight to the others: The author is award-winning novelist James Scott Bell and the publisher is Center Street Books (the “traditional values” imprint of Hachette Book Group). In the first chapter—the first page![1]—of Bell’s Try Dying, a troubled man murders his wife and shoots himself on a highway overpass. His body falls onto the car of the nice schoolteacher, who dies. Readers loved it, and not a single review—or at least none that Google could find—complained about the opening.

Bell is a veteran storyteller and knows exactly what he’s doing. If a thug pulls a knife on a main character later in the book, we’re all on edge because we know there’s a real chance the character might be killed. Authors rarely kill main characters, of course, but they also almost never kill innocent and vulnerable women. Bell offed two of those on page one. Will he do the same thing to an important good guy? Maybe. We’re not really sure what he’s willing to do next, and that’s exactly how it should be.

One final note: Choose your lines carefully. You don't want to cross a line that will turn off publishers or readers in your target audience. For example, note that Bell's characters died on the first page of his book, before we really cared about either (though we come to care about both later as we learn more about them). When in doubt, run your scene or plot development past a professional editor or author who specializes in suspense.

[1] Remember last month's post about starting with a bang?

Up next month in part #4: Keep Them Guessing. It will appear on Friday, November 20.

Rick Acker is a suspense novelist whose books include Blood Brothers (4 stars, Romantic Times), Dead Man's Rule (4.5 stars, Romantic Times), and The Davis Detective Mysteries for tweens. His next book, When the Devil Whistles will be published by Abingdon in 2010. By day, he is a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Author as Terrorist (#2): Starting with a Bang!

Rick on Maui (2) Last month, we started this series by talking about how old-school terrorists and suspense authors are the same in one important way: Like terrorists, we want to create uncertainty and tension that makes it impossible for our victims (er, readers) to focus on anything except what's going to happen next in the world we've created. Now we're going to start digging a little deeper to see what we writers can learn from the PLO and Baader-Meinhof gang.

A good terrorist introduces himself with something flashy and devastating, right? So does a good suspense writer.

Readers who pick up a suspense novel are looking for suspense. Give it to them, hard and fast. Sure, it’s important to introduce your characters, describe your setting and so on. But don't let any of those things get in the way of putting readers on the edges of their seats.

Remember how Robert Ludlum started The Bourne Identity? Despite the title of the book, Ludlum didn’t begin by introducing Jason Bourne or even telling us his name. Instead, chapter one opens with a nameless man bursting onto the deck of a ship during a raging storm. He is shot from behind, topples over the side and vanishes into the churning sea. We have no idea who the man is, what he’s doing on the ship or why he was shot. None of that matters, though, because we’re already hooked. As long as Ludlum answers those questions eventually, we don’t mind. What we really care about is what happens next.

The Bourne Identity is an extreme example, but a fair one. Virtually all good suspense novels start with a bang. Someone is shot, a child vanishes, a life is shattered by a horrible secret. Go to your bookshelf and pull down your favorite suspense novel. Read the first five pages. I guarantee that you'll see a bomb go off. Sometimes it's literal, other times it's emotional or psychological, but it's unmistakably a major explosion. Now read the first five pages of your WIP. Does something big blow up?

There are lots of ways to set off a bomb early in your book. One popular technique is to start with a tension-creating prologue that helps set up the main storyline. For example, if you’re writing a crime drama in which one of your characters is a suspected serial murderer, begin with a short prologue describing one of the murders, but don’t identify the killer. If you’re working on a vampire novel, you can open with a young woman who feels an evil breeze blow across her soul as she’s walking down a deserted street. Whatever you’re going to do, though, do it fast. Never give your readers an excuse to put your book down. If you do, chances are that they won’t pick it up again.

Up next month in part #3: Crossing Lines. It will appear on Friday, October 16.

Cross-posted at

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Story Creation

Story creation is (for me anyway) a lot like pearl creation for an oyster. It starts off with an irritating little idea in the back of my head that won't go away. If it doesn't get rejected during the process of adding layers to it, it eventually becomes a book. Here's how that layering process works:

Story summary. I try writing up a short informal synopsis of the plot. This is short--roughly 300-500 words. If I can't turn it into something that "sings," I know it's probably a dud and I drop it.

Partner review. Next I find out whether my idea sings to my wife and writing partner, Anette. Anette has a very good eye for stories that work--and those that don't. She's also perfectly willing to "speak the truth in love" when an idea doesn't quite make the cut, which is absolutely invaluable. But if she likes the story, I know I've got something worth taking to the next step.

Agent review. If Anette likes my idea, I turn the synopsis into something longer (ca. 1-2 thousand words) and more formal. I also do a little market research to make sure the story I'm proposing hasn't already been written. Then I send it to my agent. He'll let me know whether he thinks I've got a "big book" idea--one that's not just publishable, but has a "wow" element that will make it stand out from the rest of the market.

Proposal. The final layer (short of actually writing the book) is creating the proposal. If the story still looks like a "big book" after two or three sample chapters and a marketing analysis, my agent starts pitching it to publishing houses.

BTW, fewer than 1 in 10 ideas make it all the way through this process and wind up as proposals. But well over half of the proposals sell.

Cross-posted at

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Author as Terrorist: How to Think Like a Suspense Writer (#1)

Rick on Maui (2)

I love a good suspense novel--the kind that grabs you with the first line, slowly tightens its grip for 400 pages, and doesn't let go until the very end. I've also written suspense since I was in high school, and now I even get paid for it.So when CAN invited me to join this blog, it was only natural to do a series of posts on suspense writing. The series is titled The Author as Terrorist because ... well, keep reading and I'll explain.

We’ve all read—or at least started to read—thrillers that failed to thrill. They never catch fire or lose our attention after twenty pages. Before you know it they’ve been tossed in the box of books we’re donating to the next library book sale. And those are the ones that got published; hundreds of thousands of suspense novels die every year in the slush piles of agents and editors, mourned only by their authors. What went wrong with these books? More important, what went right with books that did grab us?

Good suspense novels tend to have good writing, of course. We care about the characters, chuckle at the witty dialogue, and admire the vivid description—but any good novel should have all of that. What sets a good suspense novel apart?

The key to answering that question lies in one of the favorite axioms of writing guru Randy Ingermanson: The goal of all fiction writing is to create a powerful emotional response in the reader. A romance writer wants to inspire longing and love. A mystery writer strives for intense curiosity followed by satisfaction when the mystery is unraveled at last. A horror writer, of course, tries to horrify.

And a suspense writer should create suspense, right? Readers should genuinely think that something awful might happen to a character they really care about. Better still, readers should wonder what exactly might happen and to which character.

The best suspense writers tend to think like old-fashioned terrorists. Really. The main goal of most terrorists in the 1960s and 1970s was not to kill people or blow up buildings, but to create a pervasive atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that made it impossible for their fellow citizens to lead normal lives. That, of course, is exactly the effect we suspense writers want to have on our readers. We want to make them miss their bus stops, skip meals and stay up way past their bedtimes because they absolutely have to know what’s going to happen next.

Up next month in part #2: Starting with a Bang. It will appear on Friday, September 18.

Cross-posted at

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

About that Demon Pig Story ...

The Demon Pig story posted on Brandilyn Collins' blog ( has generated quite a few questions. Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Is there really a Possumneck, Mississippi? Yes. The town itself is little more than some ruins and overgrown graveyards today, but it still shows up on maps and locals still refer to the northwest area of Attala County as Possumneck. Drugstores down there used to sell sweatshirts and mugs that said "Where the heck is Possumneck?" Alas, I haven't been able to find any of these the last few times I've been there.

How big was the Demon Pig? I only saw its head, but I'm told the Demon Pig weighed over 300 lbs. In summer, it would've weighed around 450 lbs. While big, that's only about half the size of the famous Hogzilla (

Is everything in the Demon Pig story true? Yes. Er, well, with one exception. I said in the story that the severed pig head whispered, "My name is Legion." I actually couldn't make out what it was saying. ;-)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Legal Stuff: Are Surprise Witnesses Real?

I'm a practicing lawyer as well as an author, so I get a lot of questions from other writers about legal stuff. I'll address some of the more common ones in a periodic series starting today. If you've got a particular question you'd like to see answered, leave a comment or e-mail me through my website:

Question: "I've heard that there's really no such thing as a surprise witness. Is that true?"

Answer: Generally. Surprise witnesses are like car crashes: They rarely happen if everyone is paying attention and following the rules, but you'll probably see one now and then anyway.

Why are surprise witnesses so rare? Before a case goes to trial, lawyers are allowed to engage in a lengthy process called discovery. They get to ask the other side for all sorts of information--including the identities of any witnesses their opponents may call. They then get to "depose" those witnesses, a process in which the witness is required to answer questions under oath for hours, sometimes days or even weeks.

And just to make sure neither side gets surprised, most courts require parties to exchange witness lists before trial. If there's a surprise witness on one side's list, the judge will generally either (a) give the other side an opportunity to depose the witness or (b) bar the witness from testifying.

With all those protections, how do any surprise witnesses wind up on the stand? Here are a few ways that can happen:

1. The surprise testimony comes during an emergency hearing (e.g., on a temporary restraining order, or TRO) and there's been no opportunity to depose the witness or even find out who he/she is.

2. The other side makes a tactical decision not to depose the witness. For example, I saw this happen in a case where the witness lived in Greece and opposing counsel thought his testimony would be inconsequential. They took a gamble (a bad one as it turned out) and decided not go through the hassle of taking an international depo. This wasn't technically an instance of a surprise witness so much as surprise testimony, but the effect was the same.

3. The lawyer who took the deposition (commonly called "depos" among legal professionals) didn't ask quite the right questions or didn't follow up sufficiently on a witness's evasive or ambiguous answers. It's common to have junior lawyers handle most of the depositions and other discovery, while senior attorneys handle the trial. As a result, the lawyer handling the examination at trial may take some calculated risks in asking questions that weren't asked at the depo--and may get surprised as a result.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Cost of Those AIG Bonuses

The collective wrath of all right-thinking people in and out of Washington D.C. has now intimidated AIG employees into disgorging $50 million in bonuses. Well, good. They weren't the same ones who got AIG into trouble(, but so what? They worked at AIG, and they are therefore guilty by association. Besides, we just saved $50 million in taxpayer money, right?

The only problem is that everyone else on Wall Street was watching what happened to AIG. Those are, of course, the same people who are supposed to partner with the federal government in the trillion-dollar plan Secretary Geithner just announced. They sound a little unnerved, according to the Economist:

"Will private investors nibble? The potential returns look juicy, even though they must share profits equally with the taxpayer. Big firms that would be in the running to manage funds in the programme, such as BlackRock and PIMCO, have given it a cautious welcome. But others, such as hedge funds and private-equity groups, are wary of participating in government-backed plans after witnessing the hysteria whipped up over bonus payments at American International Group (AIG), a clapped-out (and now government-controlled) insurer.

"Government officials have tried to quell these concerns by calling potential asset-buyers “good guys” and providing assurances that they will be exempt from pay restrictions aimed at recipients of taxpayer largesse. But fear abounds that they will become the next target of self-righteous politicians, especially if they are seen to be reaping windfalls. 'The political risks are scary,' says one hedge-fund manager, who also points out that some of the plan’s details are still missing: for instance, the interest rate and duration on loans for mortgage-backed securities have yet to be determined."

Anyone who knows Wall Street knows that risk equals money. The more risk you want an investor to take, the more you'll have to pay them. So, in order to recover $50 million from one company, we've raised the investment risk for all the others. How much extra will they need to be paid to participate in Geithner's plan? Tough to tell, but I bet it'll be waaaaaaaaaaaaay more than $50 million.