The Thriller

Take a look at Figure 1. It’s fruit in a bowl. A bowl of fruit, if you will. What does it make you think? Feel? I’ll answer first to break the ice. My answer is: nothing, really. It’s fruit. It does what it says on the tin (if you’ll excuse the phrase). It’s nothing more or less than what I’d expect.

Fruit bowl by 'Yosarian' (2009). Source: Wikipedia

Fruit bowl by 'Yosarian' (2009). Source: Wikipedia

There’s nothing wrong with the bowl of fruit. Nothing at all. But...

Still life by Alexander Coosemans (c. 1650), Queensland Art Gallery. Source: Wikipedia

Still life by Alexander Coosemans (c. 1650), Queensland Art Gallery. Source: Wikipedia

Take a look at Figure 2. This is Still life (c. 1650) by Alexander Coosemans. I still remember the first time I saw this painting. I still go back to look at it every time I’m in Brisbane. Not only is it fruit, it’s the most beautiful bloody fruit you’ll ever see. And it made me wonder: why paint it? Why go to all the trouble? The answer apparently has to do with the historical period. At the time, having this kind of fruit, this variety, was only possible if you were wealthy and influential. This is the kind of painting you hung to impress people (you can read more here). This got me thinking about Plato and his discomfort with art and how it can be misused. This made me revisit another book... well, anyway. My point is that Coosemans achieves much more with his fruit.

Figure 1 is a thriller novel. Figure 2 is the thriller novel I’m going to spend my lifetime trying to write for you. Here’s the catch: Figure 2 promises much more than Figure 1, which means it gets judged more harshly if it fails to deliver. Also, some people prefer Figure 1 – they know what they’re getting. Therefore, Figure 2 entails a bit more risk for both of us.

I’ve spent a long time (about fifteen years) trying to come up with a way to write a Figure 2 Thriller. So far, on this blog, I’ve written about the different things that I mixed together to make some characters, using stuff from old poems and plays, myths and legends.

Some of you may be wondering why I went to all this trouble to create characters. So...

Back in 2010, I was still a reader and only reluctantly called myself an aspiring writer. I’d had a crack at writing a thriller novel and it failed horribly, getting rejected twice in 2008. At this time, I was figuring out what was missing, what I needed to do, and what I was trying to say.

Then I saw this on the television. I recommend watching the whole thing if you get a chance, particularly if you want to write thrillers. There’s some great advice in there. But it was this from Lee Child that got my attention back in 2010:

LEE CHILD: Well, who wouldn't [do what I do]? I mean, come on. If you were a literary author starving in a garret and you had the choice to turn out a Bryce Courtenay and make yourself a multi-millionaire so your family was looked after forever, why wouldn't you do that? If you could do that. Of course you would.

He makes it sound easy, right? From memory, this ignited a controversy (not a nation-wide scandal or anything – just a bit of a verbal stoush online). I can’t honestly say it put my nose out of joint. However, the bit that stuck in my mind (other than using a word that belongs in the nineteenth century) was Child’s rhetorical question: “Why wouldn’t you write like me?”

My mind came back with a question that got louder as No Free Man took shape: “Okay, but why shouldn’t I do it better?”

After all, shouldn’t we always strive to advance the genre? Explore, do new things, push boundaries – aim for improvement?

I like Lee Child books. I think Jack Reacher is pretty cool. Likewise, I like Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow, and Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, and Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, and I’m really getting into David Baldacci’s Will Robie. I get a kick out of these thrillers. But every time I finish one of these books, I can’t help but feel that something could be done to shake up the game a little.

Maybe I’m crazy. Perhaps these stories are the way they are because they’re as good as they get – they certainly seem to do well. Still, I wondered, and started to believe that I should try to do better. Anything less would haunt me.

Think of it this way: I’ve written a book. It’s a thriller. You like thrillers. You buy the book. I’m immediately in your debt. You have no idea what your money is going to get you. Will you like it? Will you hate it? Is it worth your money? Is it worth your time? Will it entertain you, make you think, challenge you? Will it take you on a white-knuckle ride? Will it introduce you to characters that are interesting, that you care about, that show you the world from a different perspective? Will it make you laugh, make you choke up, excite you? Will you pump the air with your fist when the character you like wins?

You don’t know, not until you buy it, read it, and finish it. By then, it’s a little late.

Fortunately, I’ve been down this road before.

I’m a mechanic. I fix things inside aeroplanes. By the time the pilot gets into the plane, the thing I’ve fixed is back in its proper place and usually hidden from view. The pilot trusts me. The pilot trusts that I’ve done my job properly. The pilot doesn’t know all the stuff I’ve had to learn over the years to be competent at what I do, and there are lots of little pieces of knowledge that go into every job. If I make a mistake – well, by the time the pilot finds out, it’ll be too late. This is a big deal, and one I take very seriously. When everything goes well, however, the pilot shouldn’t even have to think about this. It’s my problem, my responsibility. The pilot gets to go flying, chuck some loops, do a barrel-roll or two, go really fast, make some noise, and return to base exhilarated. The most I get is a thumbs up and a smile. That’s enough for me.

You, the reader, are that pilot. I, the writer, am still that mechanic. You’re the one that gets to go for the ride. I’m obligated to do everything I can to make that ride happen, and make it the coolest ride possible. This blog gives you the opportunity to look over my shoulder and see what I’m doing to put the plane together (or, as has been the case so far, my characters).

So, I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to write a decent thriller. I picked up a lot from Child, Reilly, Silva, Flynn and Baldacci. But then I read wider. I learned other things about writing stories from Gilgamesh, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson, Poe, Doyle, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dickens, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wilde, and more. Some of these stories lasted for centuries because every generation finds something that resonates – we connect, we understand, we see ourselves. Plus, they’re full of adventure and humour and sex and scandal and violence – which are all the things that make a thriller tick.

Paradoxically, I’ve found that old ideas allow me to break established formulas and do something new. It’s kind of like going back to basics. It’s amazing how you can add a twist to something old and make it fresh. Check out this version of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) from Dorothee Golz. And these new versions (link deactivated by me: my antivirus software doesn't like this site, so I'm not going to send you there) of Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Heinrich (1818) from Debbie Ding.

And if you go back to the old tales, you’ll see that there are no heroes – there are only people. Some of them fight and win, some fail, all are flawed (even the gods), and none of them are boring. My advice to aspiring thriller writers: don’t make your protagonist a hero. A writer cannot create a hero – only the character can do that. Your story just gives them their chance.

I believe thrillers can be done better. I believe I owe it to you to try to write a better thriller. I’m going to use this blog to show you what I’ve done and what I’m going to do (still to come: dialogue, plotting, action, setting). I don’t know if I’ll be the writer that nails it, but I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.

After all that (and the last couple of months), you may be wondering what my characters are like. Well...

Your jet plane is ready. It's time to jump in and go for a ride.