A thriller is all about pace, the relentlessness of action, and what-happens-next. Twists and turns galore. Suspense. A thriller can come in many guises: the psychological thriller, which transports us into dark minds; the spy thriller that takes you into the shadowy world of international espionage, the sci-fi and paranormal thrillers which take you into worlds other than our own, and so many more. What every thriller has in common though is the action that doesn’t stop. Once the protagonist’s motive is established, it is all fast-paced action from there onwards.
I write literary thrillers for a living, but I struggle with pace and plot. So I often ask those who have been at it for a while for advice. Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome thriller author
- Tell us a bit about your publication journey: learning how to write thrillers, finding an agent and publisher.
I can think back to kindergarten when I used stickers as graphics and created a story around them. That was something I was always good at—storytelling. Actually writing—not so much.
That was a hard lesson to learn after I completed my first manuscript. I didn’t know anything about the business of writing, so when I completed a suspenseful women’s fiction—at 140K words—I thought it was perfect. It got rejected over and over—I’m talking over a hundred times. Finally, I had a professional edit done and good Lord, did that teach me half the stuff I didn’t know. I really think it’s something all new writers should do with their first manuscript, because they’re probably making mistakes that they don’t know about.
I finally decided it was beyond repair and shelved it, to many tears. But I kept writing and learning. I took classes, got critique partners in my genre, and read more, and still the rejections kept pouring in. But I didn’t give up.
It was my fifth manuscript that finally got my agent. I was so excited, and thought “finally, here we go!” Well. That one wasn’t selling on sub, so I wrote Finding Tessa while I was waiting. After 10 months, something came out that was very similar to my manuscript on sub, so my agent pulled it and subbed Finding Tessa instead.
We got a ton of interest initially, but it couldn’t get past acquisitions at some of the big publishers because they all had the same thought—they didn’t like the ending. My agent suggested I rewrite the last half, and after I did that, it sold two weeks later.
- Could you share a few of your favorite thriller authors?
Michele Campbell and Mary Kubica could write “directions for use” on the back of a shampoo bottle and I’d read with interest. I’m also obsessed with the You series by Caroline Kepnes. She makes voice look easy, and I know it’s not.
- Are you a plotter or pantser? Could you share a few details about your thriller writing process?
100% pantser. I read a lot of thrillers—pretty much everything that comes out, and I also review for Suspense Magazine. I’ve seen all the twists. When an idea pops into my head for a novel, I think of a twist first, and then develop a story around that.
I never outline, so I don’t know what’s going to happen from one chapter to the next—I let my characters tell me as they go through the story. Sometimes, I don’t even know “whodunnit” and change my mind as I’m washing my hair.
In my second thriller that comes out next spring, you as the reader are trying to figure out which one of the five main characters killed the groom (don’t worry, I didn’t give anything away—he drops dead halfway through page 1). I didn’t even know until I got to that character’s chapter and said “okay, this fits.”
I write fast; my original agented manuscript I wrote in six weeks, and I wrote Finding Tessa in ten weeks. It’s the editing that’s the hard part and takes months upon months. As a storyteller, I can get it out fast. As an author, the polishing is the bane of my existence.
- What is the extent of research you put into writing a thriller, and what are the research pitfalls writers must watch out for?
Google is a godsend, and it’s also the devil. As a thriller writer, you can’t just look up “vehicular manslaughter” or “murder” or “how to kill someone with antifreeze” (Hi, FBI! Ha ha) and read a passage about what’s involved.
Things differ from state to state. The severity of charges, the amount of time to serve, the arraignment process—it’s best to talk to someone who knows, or to local police, doctors, and lawyers. You’d be surprised to see how many people are willing to help out.
- Could you recommend five thrillers that you have enjoyed reading recently?
Too Good To Be True by Carola Lovering
Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano (more WF than Thriller but I was here for it)
I Don’t Forgive You by Aggie Blum Thompson
In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead (out in August!)
- How do you come up with the premises of your thrillers? If you had a choice of premises, what criteria would you use to pick the one to write on?
I love drama and secrets and trying to figure things out. I love seeing the breadcrumbs delivered by the author and trying to put together not only the who, but the why.
The WHY—what drives the character to be the way they are?—is so important. You can have a character doing crazy things, but if there’s no WHY behind it, the whole thing can fall flat. I’m not a huge fan of info dumping backstory on a character, but I like to learn about it along the way.
One thing I can’t stand is the trope of “my dad cheated on my mom when I was seven, and now I’m thirty and I’m going to kill my mom, my dad, his new wife, my best friend, my coworker, and my fiancé because I’m still sad about it.”
What I want to know is WHY the character turned to murder. It’s not a typical way to deal with trauma. I love Domestic Suspense/Thrillers because I feel they are situations any regular person can get themselves into; no one really knows what their mailman or their local bartender or the mother of three are doing behind closed doors. They could be dealing with a secret pregnancy, cheating in college, affairs, backstabbing friends, and stepping on people to get to the top in your job. I’m not saying these are good traits to have, but they rarely turn someone into a serial killer later in life.
- A good thriller ends almost all its chapters on cliffhangers. Could share tips to write cliffhanger endings to your scenes and chapters?
One lesson I learned early was that each chapter should be a short story. You have to highlight the character, their development, the scene, and a conflict in each one. Leaving out the resolution to the conflict is what makes a cliffhanger in a thriller.
With thrillers, there should always be tension and escalating conflict. Get your character in trouble. Give them a secret. Have the reader try to figure out how the character is going to get out of it, or how they’re going to get everyone else involved in their drama. The “needing to know” is what keeps the reader turning the pages.
- What is the world and setting of your new thriller FINDING TESSA like?
I try to stick with what I know. FINDING TESSA takes place in suburban NJ, where I grew up and where I currently live. I usually include aspects of New York City in my novels after having lived there for seven years and worked there for fifteen. I like to have been to a place at least ten times before I include it in my novel, so the writing comes across as authentic.
Jace and Tessa live at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a reservoir view through the woods in their yard. They have a dog. Their town has a small “Main Street” of mom-and-pop shops. I’m not saying it’s exactly like where I live (it is, ha ha) but I have experience with getting to know local shop owners and bartenders and how they interact with their patrons. They all appreciate “the regulars.” Most people in tight knit communities, when faced with a choice to go to a chain restaurant or the local one that their neighbor’s brother owns, they choose the latter.
- What is that one thing you’d like readers to know about FINDING TESSA before they dive into the thriller?
Don’t get too comfortable. You’re not reading what you think you are! 🙂
Do you love reading thrillers? What thriller have you read recently? Do you have craft or publishing questions for Jaime? Are you going to pick up FINDING TESSA? (If you’ve already read it, go drop it a review on Amazon and Goodreads, please.)
Jaime is giving away a signed copy of her book to one of the readers who comment below. (USA audiences only)
My debut literary crime novel,”You Beneath Your Skin,” published by the fab team at Simon and Schuster IN is optioned to be a TV series by Endemol Shine.
It is available in India here.
Reviews are appreciated–please get in touch if you’d like a review copy.
If you’re on Amazon, I’d appreciate it if you gave my Amazon author profile a Follow, here.
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I won this book on Natalie Aguirre’s blog, and loved it! Gave it a 5+ stars for its cliff-hanging tension from start to finish.
Huge correction: I won this book on Damyanti’s blog! I think my head’s on backwards these days. Sorry.
I love Jaime so much…her book finding tessa was really unique take on thrillers
Interview is so genuine and informative 🙌
Over 100 submissions! I thought I’d done a lot of queries. (One agency expressed interest and then sat on it for over 6 months before sending it back.) But persistence pays off doesn’t it. I also agree regarding editors. I belonged to a professional group of writers and 6 people had edited it, so I told my editor she wouldn’t have much to do. Boy was I wrong – she really cleaned it up the details.
Total before I got agented was over 400 rejections on 4 MSs! Shelving the first was the hardest thing I had to do. At the time, anyway. Things get harder!
Nice that you are supporting other writers.
She’s the best 🥰
Recently I have read ‘Verity’ by Colleen Hoover which has amazing twists and turns. And ‘The silent patient’ by Alex Michaelides gave a mind blowing ending. Hope you too like these books. Let me know.
I loved verity!!!!!
Hi Damyanti – what a great guest poster … Jaime certainly has worked hard at her genre – and this was a fun read – I particularly picked up that ‘each chapter should be a short story’. I don’t write novels or stories as such … but I do enjoy the learning process I find amongst blogging friends – thanks for this – and all the best to the both of you – cheers Hilary
Thank you for your interest!! ☺️
Smart to set stories in an area you are familiar with – one less thing to research!
Authenticity is key! People who think the Eiffel Tower looks like it does on TV… ha. It’s patrolled my military and you’ll be on line for hours! 😂
This is a great interview. I was lucky enough to be a part of a video call with Jaime after reading this book. I borrowed a library copy, so I would love to have my own signed copy.
Thank you friend! 😘
This was really interesting. The author’s a pantser–that’s a great bit of information. Every chapter should end in a cliffhanger…wow! And that if I read her new book, I’m in for the unexpected. Great post.
I tried to plot. I can’t do it! I hate boxing my characters into what I think they should be, when in reality they come alive as I write them and change along the way 🙂
CONGRATS TO YOU CLeeMckenzie!
Sorry for the delay in posting, the whole “no social media” thing today was a little jarring 😁 Damyanti will be in touch!
Jaime, thanks so much for being such a lovely guest.
Huge congratulations to you, Lee–I hope you enjoy Finding Tessa!
Good interview and I appreciate your list of favorite thriller authors. My usual favorites–Daniel Silva and Brad Thor–have been less than satisfactory lately so I’m looking for new favorites. I’ll give yours a try!
You won’t be disappointed! 😉