How to write a thriller
Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.
Isn't that the best two lines of dialogue you've ever read?
I have been thinking about James Bond -- and his creator Ian Fleming -- quite a bit lately. Part of this springs from the fact that I am supposed to be a "thriller" writer yet I don't really know what that is supposed to mean. Especially today when the genres are criss-crossing each other faster than panicked chickens.
Two years ago, I was a judge for the International Thriller Writers first contest and I confess that our First Novel committee had some trouble figuring out which books qualified as thrillers and which did not. The old rules don't really apply anymore what with the rich ingredients many writers are throwing into the pot these days.
You just can't limit the definition (as some still insist on doing) to the hoary formula: A common man thrust into extraordinary circumstances in (insert exotic locale here) faces down a (insert monster or menace here) with the help of the beautiful and mysterious (insert female stereotype here) to save (insert organization, country or world here) before the clock ticks down to the final second.
So what IS a thriller?
Beats me. And we won the ITW Thriller Award this past summer. But since I am still trying to wrap my brain around this question, I thought I'd go back to one of the originals -- Ian Fleming.
I had heard about an article Fleming wrote about thrillers and had been trying to find it for some time. Damned if I didn't finally stumble on it today as I was searching the web for something else. Kind of like finding your glasses when you're looking for your wallet.
So, I am going to go back to writing my chapter now, since the book is due in three days. But I hope you'll enjoy this article as much as I did. Fleming wrote it in 1962. There's some really good advice in here that still makes sense to me today.
HOW TO WRITE A THRILLER
By Ian Fleming
People often ask me, "How do you manage to think of that? What an extraordinary (or sometimes extraordinarily dirty) mind you must have." I certainly have got vivid powers of imagination, but I don't think there is anything very odd about that.
We are all fed fairy stories and adventure stories and ghost stories for the first 20 years of our lives, and the only difference between me and perhaps you is that my imagination earns me money. But, to revert to my first book, Casino Royale, there are strong incidents in the book which are all based on fact. I extracted them
from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.
The first was the attempt on Bond's life outside the Hotel Splendide. SMERSH had given two Bulgarian assassins box camera cases to hang over their shoulders. One was of red leather and the other one blue. SMERSH told the Bulgarians that the red one con-tained a bomb and the blue one a powerful smoke screen, under cover of which they could escape.
One was to throw the red bomb and the other was then to press the button on the blue case. But the Bulgars mistrusted the plan and decided to press the button on the blue case and envelop themselves in the smoke screen before throwing the bomb. In fact, the blue case also contained a bomb powerful enough to blow both the Bulgars to fragments and remove all evidence which might point to SMERSH.
Farfetched, you might say. In fact, this was the method used in the Russian attempt on Von Papen's life in Ankara in the middle of the war. On that occasion the assassins were also Bulgarians and they were blown to nothing while Von Papen and his wife, walking from their house to the embassy; were only bruised by the blast.
So you see the line between fact and fantasy is a very narrow one. I think I could trace most of the central incidents in my books to some real happenings.
We thus come to the final and supreme hurdle in the writing of a thriller. You must know thrilling things before you can write about them. Imagination alone isn't enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction.
Having assimilated all this encouraging advice, your heart will nevertheless quail at the physical effort involved in writing even a thriller. I warmly sympathise with you. I too, am lazy My heart sinks when I contemplate the two or three hundred virgin sheets of foolscap I have to besmirch with more or less well chosen words in order to produce a 60,000 word book.
One of the essentials is to create a vacuum in my life which can only be satisfactorily filled by some form of creative work - whether it be writing, painting, sculpting, composing or just building a boat - I was about to get married - a prospect which filled me with terror and mental fidget. To give my hands something to do, and as an antibody to my qualms about the marriage state after 43 years as a bachelor, I decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book.
The therapy was successful. And while I still do a certain amount of writing in the midst of my London Life, it is on my annual visits to Jamaica that all my books have been written.
But, failing a hideaway such as I possess, I can recommend hotel bedrooms as far removed from your usual "life" as possible. Your anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and distractions will create a vacuum which should force you into a writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will also make you write fast and with application. I do it all on the
typewriter, using six fingers. The act of typing is far less exhausting than the act of writing, and you end up with a more or less clean manuscript The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine.
I write for about three hours in the morning - from about 9:30 till 12:30and I do another hour's work between six and seven in the evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and putting them away in a spring-back folder. The whole of this four hours of daily work is devoted to writing narrative.
I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used "terrible" six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500
words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren't disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks.
I don't even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished.
When my book is completed I spend about a week going through it and correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting passages. I then have it properly typed with chapter headings and all the rest of the trimmings. I then go through it again, have the worst pages retyped and send it off to my publisher.
They are a sharp-eyed bunch at Jonathan Cape and, apart from commenting on the book as a whole, they make detailed suggestions which I either embody or discard. Then the final typescript goes to the printer and in due course the galley or page proofs are there and you can go over them with a fresh eye. Then the book is published and you start getting letters from people saying that Vent Vert is made by Balmain and not by Dior, that the Orient Express has vacuum and not hydraulic brakes, and that you have mousseline sauce and not Bearnaise with asparagus.
Such mistakes are really nobody's fault except the author's, and they make him blush furiously when he sees them in print. But the majority of the public does not mind them or, worse, does not even notice them, and it is a dig at the author's vanity to realise how quickly the reader's eye skips across the words which it has taken him so many months to try to arrange in the right sequence.
But what, after all these labours, are the rewards of writing and, in my case, of writing thrillers?
First of all, they are financial. You don't make a great deal of money from royalties and translation rights and so forth and, unless you are very industrious and successful, you could only just about live on these profits, but if you sell the serial rights and the film rights, you do very well. Above all, being a successful writer is a good life. You don't have to work at it all the time and you carry your office around in your head. And you are far more aware of the world around
Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings and, since the main ingredient of living, though you might not think so to look at most human beings, is to be alive, this is quite a worthwhile by-product of writing.