17 December 2020

Writing the thriller (book review)

Writing the Thriller

Writing the Thriller by Trish Macdonald Skillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took this book out of the library and read it because I'm in the final stages of editing a children's book I've been writing, and I wanted a reminder of some of the things I should look out for in editing. I say this as a warning, because if you are setting out to write a thriller from scratch, my review will probably be less helpful to you than those of some other people, because the things I was looking for in the book would be different from yours.

The book begins by defining the genre: the thriller or suspense novel is primarily about danger to characters in the story. It also defines several sub-genres of the thriller: (1) action/adventure; (2) Legal thrillers; (3) Medical Thrillers; (4) Political Thrillers; (5) Romantic relationship suspense; (6) Women or children in Jeopardy; and (6) Techno-thrillers.

The focus is entirely on the USA, so it will be most helpful for people writing stories set in the USA which will be submitted to US publishers and intended for readers in the USA. This doesn't make the book useless for writers in other countries, though there are some things that they will need to be aware of. 

For one thing, publishers and booksellers in different countries have different ideas about the boundaries of genres and though there is probably a large overlap in the case of thriller/suspense novels in different countries, they don't always overlap completely. The same applies to the tastes and expectations of readers in different countries. I find the US categorisation of the various subdivisions of juvenile fiction particularly confusing.

The book also makes the point that thrillers are commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction, and so the primary concern is that it should entertain readers, fulfil their expectations of the genre, and sell well enough to turn a good profit for the publisher and author. These considerations for outweigh the literary quality of the work in question. The advice given on writing, editing and preparation for publication is therefore given with these considerations in mind. Some of the advice will be different, or at least differently weighted for other genres.

My interest was somewhat different from that of the intended readership. I've been writing a children's book, which most publishers regard as belonging to a different genre, though as some parts of the book involve action/adventure and suspense, a lot of the advice in the book can be applied. I found it most useful as a kind of check-list of things to look out for in editing -- things like pacing, tone, characterisation and the like. People looking for advice on how to write a book from scratch might see it somewhat differently.

The second part of the book is devoted to interviews with some successful published authors of thrillers, explaining how they write and what works for them, and recommendations of things to emulate or pitfalls to avoid. The main body of the book also contains examples from the writings of these and other authors. I found these useful because I had read some of the books mentioned, and thus could see how it works out in practice. Among these authors are Clive Cussler, Tess Gerritsen, John Gilstrap and Richard North Patterson.

The book will therefore be most useful to those writing thrillers for the US market, but it is still useful generally and has a lot of good advice, even though it may need some adaptation for other circumstances.

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