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Want Tips to Write a Story from an Award-winning, Bestselling Author?

When reading a story, do you wonder how it was written? If you write stories, what is the secret ingredient to your craft?

Story writing is as old as human history. For as long as there have been people, they have wanted to tell or listen to a story. Story-telling is a primal drive.

It sounds simple: just tell a story, right? At least it seems that way to us when we read it. For writers though, writing a story can be a challenging business, especially if the aim is to write a story that grips the reader, and doesn’t let go.

Which is where tips on how to write a story from a master story-teller might come in handy. Today on the site, we have the amazing, and amazingly gracious bestselling and award-winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan, who has generously answered all my questions about her writing, her process, and the secret ingredient that make her stories such roaring successes!

In the years I’ve know her, she’s taught me as many lessons in being a sterling literary citizen as she’s taught me in writing. Her advice is given with great kindness and insight.

1. When did you know you wanted to become an author?

Is being an author different than being a writer? I think it is. I thought about being a mystery author when I was maybe–12.  After reading Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. But looking back on it now, I’m not sure I understood what “being an author” meant. Or how anyone would do that. I began as a storyteller, as a journalist, in 1971; as a reporter for local radio, then in Washington DC for Rolling Stone Magazine, and then, since 1976, on television in Atlanta, Indianapolis and now in Boston. So, odd to think of it, now, all these years later, but there wasn’t really any planning involved, or even any desire. It was more…falling in love with it once I had started. 

2. What roles do secrets play in your stories and why? Without giving away spoilers, would you like to share your titles in which secrets play a major part?

Secrets are the whole ball game! Who has a secret, what is it, what will happen if they tell it.  Who wants to keep it quiet, and who wants it to be revealed? How far will they go to make that happen?  Every single one of my books relies on secrets.  There are even secret messages in my first novel PRIME TIME, I am still incredibly proud of that. In THE FIRST TO LIE, I tried something with secrets that I’d never done before, and I think it worked. Oh, and THE MURDER LIST. (More about that I cannot say.)  Cataloging my 15 novels now–every single one of them relies on a secret. In THE HOUSE GUEST, which is out right now, every character has a pivotal secret. Without secrets, there is no story.

When reading a story, do you wonder how it was written? If you write stories, what is the secret ingredient to your craft?

3. What part of your writing process do you find the most rewarding and what’s the part you wish you could do without? 

The part I wish I could do without? That’s so easy. The first two parts: coming up with the idea, and writing a first draft. I absolutely crawl my way through those. Whining and moaning. Once I have a first draft though, I am enthralled, enchanted, and devoted to editing. I will never get over the magic of tweaking and polishing and deleting deleting deleting… And seeing the emergence of the story that I meant to write. 

(In my newest novel, in editing now, I just cut 8929 words, not that I’m counting…)

4. You’re masterful at writing jaw-dropping twists into your cat-and-mouse thrillers. For a fledgling thriller writer, what’s the best way to learn how to write twists?

Aw, thank you! Twists. I actually don’t know whether you can learn how to do that. You simply have to let your mind go. Sometimes I imagine I am putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and then I realize…the picture I’m making is not what I expected it to be. Does that make sense? Or that if you turn the completed puzzle onto the other side, it would show something completely different. I think the key of a twist is to understand what the reader will expect or anticipate or guess…and then, don’t do that

Every twist I write is a surprise to me. They’re not planned. They are the result of asking myself: Who has misunderstood something? Who is not what they seem? Who has a hidden agenda? Who has miscalculated? Who has made an error in judgement?  What is unexpected? Just like real life.

5. When you begin writing a novel, do you already know the end or do you discover it while writing? 

I totally do not know the ending. Not even close. And I am absolutely terrified each time that I have created a mystery that I cannot solve.

Recently, though, I started trying to envision the last frame of the story, the last picture in the video of my book. How I wanted that to feel, and who would be in that picture, and who wouldn’t. And what emotion would linger for the reader.  And that’s seemed helpful. It’s more of a feeling, of a finality and satisfaction in the story than the end of the plot. It’s the coda of the novel, looking forward into a real life that will not be in the book. It’s a frame of the emotional ending, and then I try to get there.

6. If you could give your younger writing self some advice, what would it be?

Easy one. Just keep going. Just keep going. Some days will be glorious, and some days it will be miserable, and that’s what the writing life is. Embrace it, and just keep going. There are so many things that you cannot control, but only one that you can: to write the very best book possible, give it one hundred percent, and then be open to the universe. What can I say? This is true, and it is powerful to believe

7. You have an amazing writing community. What advice would you give new authors on connecting with fellow authors and readers?

Thank you! Advice? It’s not about you. It’s about the other people. It’s about what other people need, and what they wish for. It’s not about what they can do for you, it’s what you can do for them, as a fellow member of the writing community. How can you lift someone else up? How can you make someone else happy?  How can you make someone else thrilled and delighted? Think about the very things you love people to do for you… and then try to do that for them.  That’s my very favorite thing. 

8. What are five thrillers you’ve recently enjoyed reading?

Wrong Place, Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister–brilliantly and bravely structured.

All That Is Mine I Carry with Me by William Landay—he breaks every single rule of novel-writing, and it is irresistible.

Iris Yamashita’s City Under One Roof is unique and riveting.

Katie Gutierrez’s More Than You’ll Ever Know—gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Lisa Jewell’s None of This is True. She is a flat-out genius.

9. For someone new to your work, which of your novels should they read first?

Oh, that is a complicated question! Of course I would say THE HOUSE GUEST, that’s the one that’s out right now, and yes, I’ve done things in that book that I never have done before. And I’m exceedingly happy with it. It went into a second printing after six days! But I think it’s instructive to read TRUST ME, my very first standalone, which I secretly admire in a lot of ways. It was sort of an homage to In Cold Blood—how can a writer of true crime really know the truth? I know I went for it with that novel, and I’m exceedingly proud of it. But then, THE MURDER LIST, I took a huge risk with that one, too! One reviewer said. “If Lisa Scottoline and John Grisham had a book baby, The Murder List would be it.” Which I loved.  So I think the answer to this impossible question is that all of my books have the Hank DNA, they’re a cat and mouse game. But which character is the cat? If you love that, close your eyes and choose.

10. What is the world and setting of your new novel The House Guest like? What would you like readers to know before they pick it up?

THE HOUSE GUEST in five words: Greed. Divorce. Betrayal. Sisterhood. Revenge. Two smart women, facing off in a high stakes psychological cat and mouse game to prove their truth about a devastating betrayal. It’s a cat and mouse thriller, of course, but –as I always warn–which character is the cat, and which character is the mouse? Its Gaslight meets Thelma & Louise meets Strangers on a Train. And remember, I may be gaslighting you, too.

What about you? When reading a story, do you wonder how it was written? If you write stories, what is the secret ingredient to your craft? Have you read novels by Hank Phillippi Ryan?

If you liked this post, check out her other interview on my site, here !

She’s also spoken about her characters, here.

This is the first Wednesday of the month post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The questions was: if you ever did stop writing, what would you replace it with?
I wish I knew. I don’t see any scenario where I’m alive and well and not writing. To me, writing is the constant drumbeat in my head. It sometimes comes to the fore, recedes at others, but never falls silent. I’ve trie dto stop writing, more than once, and have not succeeded.  So now, it is a sort of surrender. I’ll keep writing till I can’t do it anymore.
Founded by the Ninja writing female charactersCap’n Alex J. Cavanaugh, the purpose of the group is to offer a safe space where writers can share their fears and insecurities without being judged.
This is a wonderful group–if you aren’t a part of it, I urge you to join in!
The awesome co-hosts for the February 1 posting of the IWSG are Patricia Josephine, Diedre Knight, Olga Godim, J. Lenni Dorner, and Cathrina Constantine!

My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is up for pre-orders! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin.  Find all info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her next literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and was published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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