Periscope Depth

muse and the marketplace 2011 (pt1)

Muse and the Marketplace always toys with my emotions. Between one seminar and the next, I go from convinced that I can make it as a writer to convinced that I have years left to go. The advice given by the M+M instructors reaffirms my strengths and points out my weaknesses. Which is what it should be doing. Steady writing should be a constant exercise in reaffirmation and humility. The upside: criticism and compliments both encourage me to write more.

Some notes on the speakers I heard:

Gary Braver: who also lectures at Northeastern under his birth name, Gary Goshgarian (any NU kids take him?). He talked about the basics of writing a thriller. A thriller is distinct from a mystery (says Braver) by the feeling of dread its meant to inspire. In a thriller the focus is less on the whodunit and more on the ticking clock, the danger and the stakes. Also, a thriller – like any good novel – requires the protagonist to have two quests: a public one (reflected in the plot) and a private one (reflected in character growth).

Tess Gerritsen: One of my favorite thriller authors, and always an entertaining speaker. She talked about turning ideas into novel-worthy plots. Everyone thinks they have an idea (says Gerritsen) for a thriller: there’s a serial killer at a girls’ school. There’s a bomb in Grand Central Station. The problem is, without creating a character and a situation that the audience can invest in emotionally, that’s still a boring novel. Gerritsen’s suggestion is to take an odd idea and keep asking “What if …” until you come up with something that creeps you out or excites you. What if an extremophile – a type of organism that can only survive in hostile environments, like the archaeans who live in volcanic vents – was brought aboard the I.S.S. to be studied? And what if removal from Earth’s gravity caused it to mutate in some way? And what if it grew so toxic in the process that the White House ordered that the shuttle docked with the I.S.S. couldn’t return to Earth? That’s where Gerritsen got the idea for Gravity from.

Gerritsen also brought up, unprompted, a point I’ve heard in several other seminars on thrillers: that most reading overall, and about 85% of thriller reading, is done by women. “If you can’t sell to women, you have a problem.” Of the remaining thriller readers who are men, many of them won’t read anything written by a woman. So it’s a weird market, unless you have a man’s name on the cover of your novel and you’re writing about serial killers stalking career women. In which case you’re fine.

Raffi Yessayan: a former A.D.A. in District Court in Roxbury and former head of Boston’s Gang Unit in the Suffolk County D.A.’s office. Yessayan was much more compelling when he went off-script and fielded questions from the audience. He told the story of his quest for an agent: how he introduced himself to every agent at Crimebake with his business card out and a 5-second career spiel. That’s a perfect platform for a new thriller author, the kind of thing agents and editors eat up. Yet he got no calls. He mentioned his writing to a coworker in the D.A.’s office, who mentioned a cousin who’d just written a book on bass fishing. She introduced them, her cousin reached out to his agent, and that’s how Yessayan sold 2 in the Hat.

Yessayan also had some good points on how to work in jargon without losing a reader. Little details give the reader a sense of place (“did you run his BOP?”) but nothing sounds phonier than one character expositioning something he’d already know (“his Bureau of Prisons record? yeah, he’s clean”).

More tomorrow.

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