Tag Archives: suspense

Writing Tips from Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Heavenly Table

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do? Yes, I go to my “office” in the backyard, a former garden shed that I fixed up when we bought the house we’re living in now (unfortunately, I have a difficult time blocking out the world, so writing in a “public” place is impossible for me). There is no phone or internet, just a table and chair and some reference books along with a laptop and a typewriter. The first thing I do to get started is pour a cup of coffee from a thermos and light a cigarette. Believe me, I’ve tried, but I can’t do it any other way. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received? Learn to sit in the chair for a designated period of time, regardless of whether anything is “happening” or not. I think this is the main thing that defeats many aspiring writers, and it’s easy for me to see why.   There have been many, many days when I’d rather be doing anything else (it’s the only time when washing windows seems like a fantastic idea). But I almost always force myself to stay put because nothing will ever happen unless I’m sitting there to help make it happen.   It might be a little easier for me because I’m the type of person who does better at writing and everything else if I’m living on a schedule, but it’s still hard sometimes.  What writing techniques have you found most important? When I decided to learn how to write short stories, I didn’t know anything and I struggled for quite a while without making much progress. Then I read an interview with a writer who said she learned to write by copying out other people’s stuff. For some reason, that made sense to me, and I began typing out short stories by Hemingway, Cheever, Yates, Johnson, O’Connor, on and on. I did approximately one story a week for maybe 18 months and it got me so much “closer” to seeing how they did things like writing dialogue, making transitions, etc. It could be that it worked for me because I’m not a very good reader, but it definitely helped me start figuring some things out. On occasion, when I’m having a bad day, I will still type out a paragraph or two from somebody else. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is the best novel I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, reading it also makes me realize how worthless my own work is. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. I copied every story out of that book when I was starting out, and it helped push me toward the idea of developing, for lack of a better term, my own “voice.”   Also, Earl Thompson’s A Garden of Sand, which I came across when I was maybe sixteen and have never forgotten. I’ve mentioned it before in interviews as being the first book I ever read that contained characters similar to some of the people I grew up around.   Of course, you have to understand, my reading was somewhat limited in those days and I probably hadn’t even heard of people like Faulkner and O’Connor yet. Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Beth Lewis, author of The Wolf Road

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? Stop thinking of your characters as characters and start thinking of them as people. Let them evolve and grow naturally on the page and have them react to situations believably. I believe it’s the writer’s job to figure out what the character wants and then do everything you can possibly imagine to stop them from getting it. Nothing should come to them easily, where’s the fun in that? Conflict creates character and I’ve found the best way to get to know them is to put them in difficult situations, whether emotionally or physically. It’s how we act when pushed to our limits that show who we really are. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I tend to get new ideas around the 70,000-word mark of the previous idea, which is really distracting. I usually get a picture in my head of the opening scene, like the very first frame of a movie, or I might get the opening line. Then a vague sense of the story, and that’s about it. I make a note of it all in my phone for when I’m ready. When I’m able to start the new project I grab my laptop, go to a cafe and stare at the blank page for while. I’ll go on Twitter, read the news, go on Twitter some more and then, once the double espresso kicks in, I’m off. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Don’t be boring. Of all the writing advice out there – and there’s a lot – this is the only one I see as a firm rule. You can do anything you want with your story as long as it isn’t boring. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? Not consciously but I have read back over my work sometimes and thought, huh, that sounds just like my mother, better change it! For me, the best part of writing is creating new characters that don’t exist anywhere else. Sure they may have the odd trait in common with someone just as a child shares traits with their parents, but for me, I want my characters as a whole to be fully original. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Such a wonderful, far-reaching book and a masterclass on voice and setting. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte Wild, beautiful, and heart-rending. It drags you through all the emotions twice. Weaveworld by Clive Barker All five senses are taken to the max in this book, you get drunk on it.   Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Matt Marinovich, author of The Winter Girl

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? I write really fast, not worrying about making mistakes when I’m working on a first draft. I think novice writers make a mistake when they worry too much about where their novel is going, or get buried in too much outline. Surprise yourself, sentence by sentence; don’t worry about the next chapter. In reality, the first page of your novel is the most important of all. It’s where you define the pace and mood of your story. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? I was fortunate enough to study with the late Grace Paley. I remember showing her a story and she told me there was no conflict in it. I gave her this blank face, so she suddenly slapped her hands together, so that I could hear what conflict was. It was the simplest writing lesson I’ve ever had, but one that I’ve never forgotten. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry is fantastic. These are connected short stories based on the civil war in Russia and he has this enviable minimalistic style. He doesn’t waste a single word. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. Carver is the American version of Babel to me. These were the stories that blew me away in graduate school, especially the way the morality of each piece ends up being thrown upon the reader. I love writers who don’t tie things up neatly for the reader. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky was one of those books I read as a kid that put me in a trance. Movies never had the same levitating effect on me as a novel like that. Describe your writing style in five words or less. An endless sense of dread. Learn more about The Winter Girl below: 

Writing Tips from Chris Pavone, author of The Travelers

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? As intimately as possible. For me, that’s by writing character sketches. Not just a paragraph or two, but deep intricate stories complete with grade-school triumphs and middle-school humiliations, grandparents immigrating and parents divorcing, detailed visions of houses and part-time jobs, dead pets and young-adult heartbreak, irrelevant vignettes coming out of the woodwork. I don’t expect for this character-sketch material to make it into the book—90 percent of it doesn’t come close, and I end up deleting most of the 10 percent that I do shoehorn into early drafts. But this backstage exercise helps me define these imaginary people, so I know how their voices sound, what they look like and even how they dress, what they’re worried about and hopeful for, what they want. So when it’s time for these characters to walk onstage, they’re ready. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a copy editor at Doubleday, and for a brief period it was my job to help shepherd Pat Conroy’s Beach Music into the world. I ended up spending a good amount of time with Pat, who’d temporarily relocated to New York City to finish working on the manuscript. One day we walked from a meeting at his editor’s house to his hotel, the unnecessarily long way through a cold damp Central Park, while Pat peppered me with questions about my unconventional childhood in New York City in the 1970s. I eventually asked why he was so curious. And he told me that this is the most important thing for writers to do: to listen—really listen—to other people’s stories. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I spend a huge amount of time writing about the book, instead of writing the actual text. This includes the above-mentioned character sketches, but also scenes that I don’t know will fit anywhere, and plot notes and alternate possibilities, and a detailed outline. Sometimes I have a half-dozen documents open, and none of them is the book. For my most recent, The Travelers, I even wrote a TV treatment and a pilot script, neither of which I attempted to sell. I think it’s useful for me to try to tell a story in different formats, especially very short ones: the one-sentence elevator pitch and the one-page flap copy. A writer can spend a decade working obsessively on a novel, but in the commerce of publishing many of the most important decisions about any book will be made based on very short pitches—from literary agent to editor to sales rep to bookstore buyer to a potential reader standing in the bookstore, asking, “What’s it about?” Every single one of those interactions is an opportunity for the book’s life to be cut short or to survive, for someone to decline or to agree, “Okay, I’ll take a look.” But I won’t be there for any of those interactions—you never get a chance to defend your book!—so instead I want to try to make sure that the book is pitchable. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I did, yes. But for a long time I equated being a working novelist with being third baseman for the Yankees: an unrealistic dream, an impractical self-indulgence. After college I was burdened with student loans to repay, no financial cushion, so I wasn’t in a position to bet everything on a creative-writing career—neither the writing-workshop academia life nor the freelance-writer version, trying to scrape by on short stories and house-painting gigs. I wanted to pursue a separate freestanding career, one that would definitely put me in the path of becoming a writer, but also one that would also be tenable and satisfying if I never ended up writing a published book. So I worked in publishing. My career got off to an extremely slow start as a direct-marketing assistant at a professional-magazine publisher (our titles included the likes of Journal of Accounting and Middle Market Lending Letter, and I was tracking the efficacy of junk-mail campaigns), but one thing led to another, and I quickly moved into the book end of things, and seven jobs later I was an associate publisher. That turned out to be the last position I quit, nearly a decade ago. I was thirty-eight years old. Learn more about Chris Pavone’s new book below!

From the Editor’s Desk: Linda Marrow, Editor of Try Not To Breathe

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

The manuscript of Try Not To Breathe came in to me at about 9:30 one night and due to some happy intersection of title and description and still being too awake to go to bed, I made a cup of tea at about 10 and decided to glance at a page or two before turning in.  At about 1 a.m. I forced myself away from the book for the night but could barely fall asleep – so full was my head and my heart of the story of the two young women Holly Seddon had created.  When I was in the world on her pages I had that magical and delicious feeling every lifelong reader knows when your actual surroundings melt away and all you can see are the streets and houses the characters are seeing. I finished reading the manuscript the next night and for days after I couldn’t stop thinking about Amy and Alex and what both joined and separated them.

Hopefully without giving too much away, the novel is about two women, Alex and Amy, both 30 years old and from the same area of England, where they grew up going to neighboring schools. Told in alternating points of view, their lives intersect in a way that will change everything for both of them. Alex is a journalist whose life has spiraled completely out of control. She had seen tremendous success as a writer very early in her twenties when she beautifully and movingly documented the last year of her mother’s struggle with terminal illness. During this time she became incredibly sought after in London magazine circles and also married the love of her life. But when her mother dies, Alex loses her moorings and plummets into alcohol and reckless behavior, finally moving back to the house she had grown up in.

When Alex is at her local hospital one day working on a small, routine story (the only kind of writing work she can now get)about vegetative cases – she finds herself staring at a young woman, a patient, asleep. The girl looks familiar to her, and suddenly she realizes that  this is Amy Stevenson, a girl who had disappeared when both she and Alex were 15, only to be found near death in the woods. Amy has been in a coma ever since, and the police were never able to discover who had assaulted this girl. Amy’s family and the whole town were left mystified and damaged.

Alex finds herself haunted by her own memories of that time and cannot stop herself from beginning to investigate the story. She realizes that in the fifteen years since the attack, Amy has gone from being at the center of notoriety to having been nearly completely forgotten.

Of the many themes explored by Holly in the novel, two are favorites of mine. One is the phenomenon of locked in syndrome, which Holly researched and uses so brilliantly for the character of Amy, showing us the heartbreak of a young girl trapped mutely within her body.  My other favorite is the music of the novel. From its title on, Holly has imbued her book with a perfect soundtrack as iconic song after song from the early to mid-90s seems to play in the background. And by the end one can see that Try Not To Breathe isn’t just an R.E.M. song title but helps introduce one of the most compelling facets of the novel – the false promise of control, and the beauty and wonder of watching Alex measure out just enough courage each day to fight her demons one more time.

Listen to an excerpt from the book here:

Read more about Try Not To Breathe below.

Interview with C.J. Box, author of the Joe Pickett novels

Off the Grid, the sixteenth Joe Pickett novel by New York Times bestselling author C.J. Box, is being published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons on March 8.  Strong advance buzz has been building for this book, which revolves around how terror is found – and fought – in the wild expanses of Wyoming.  Game warden Joe Pickett, his best friend Nate Romanowksi, and Joe’s daughter Sheridan are embroiled in multiple plot lines that unfurl with urgency, harrowing suspense and surprising twists.  The Joe Pickett character entered the literary world in 2001 and a reviewer for The New York Times once wrote, “ … Box introduced us to his unlikely hero … a decent man who lives paycheck to paycheck and who is deeply fond of his wife and his three daughters. Pickett isn’t especially remarkable except for his honesty and for a quality that Howard Bloom attributes to Shakespeare – the ability to think everything through for himself.”  Fellow Penguin Random House author Lee Child has called Box “one of today’s solid-gold, A-list, must-read writers.” Read on for a Q&A with C.J. Box.  C.J.  Box agreed to respond to the following questions for Igloo:  Sixteen novels in, what do you think accounts for the wealth of themes, storylines and characters that have kept your Joe Pickett series fresh and filled with surprises? OpenSeasonAlthough the first Joe Pickett novel (Open Season) was written as a one-off at the time, the characters, themes, location, and style introduced in that book provided a great framework for the series to grow.  I’ve never had to regret the foundation laid in that book.  Also, because the books take place in real time the characters mature and change from book to book.  For example, Joe Pickett’s daughter Sheridan is seven years old in Open Season and now 22 in Off the Grid.  Because the characters get older and benefit (or not) from previous situations in the books I think that helps keep the series fresh.  Plus, since each book includes a theme or controversy unique to the story (endangered species, alternative energy, the ethics of hunting, or in the case of Off the Grid — domestic terrorism) they are all stand-alones in their own way. A lot of your longtime fans will be happy that your character Nate Romanowski features prominently in Off the Grid.  From a writer’s standpoint, what is involved in making Nate so interesting and unpredictable?  Unlike just about every other character in the series, Nate Romanowski is based on a friend of mine although I’ve exaggerated (Thank God) his personality. The buddy I grew up with was a big blonde middle linebacker who later went on to join the military and special forces.  He took me falconry hunting and through him I was introduced to the very strange and fascinating world of falconers and the mindset that goes with it.  And, of course, Nate carries one of the largest handguns in the world and he’s good with it. For a reader coming to your Joe Pickett novels for the first time, which  of your backlist titles, from Open Season onward, would you recommend they check out first and why? CJBox3booksTnailTough question, since in their way each book stands alone.  No reader would be hopelessly lost starting with any book in the series.  Of course, those who’ve read them all say it’s important to start with OPEN SEASON so the reader can experience Joe’s family growing and changing, and I probably lean that direction.  But there are certain books —Winterkill,  Free Fire,  Breaking Point, andOff the Grid   – that I think could be good entry points into the series. Find out more about C.J. Box’s books below.  

Bookspotting: Kelli is reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House. Kelli Kelli, in Crown production, is reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz. Find out more about the book here:

Bookspotting: John is reading The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House. john John, in online marketing, is reading The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler Olsen. Find out more about the book here:

Bookspotting: Alex is reading The Scarlatti Inheritance by Robert Ludlum

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House.   alex Alex, in Crown production, is reading The Scarlatti Inheritance by Robert Ludlum. Show us what you’re reading by using the #bookspotting hashtag!