Steal It All’s Author Chuck Bowie Spills About Writing Thrillers
February 27, 2016 by janiefranz
Steal It All
By Chuck Bowie
March 6, 2016
This breakup line has been the subject of many movie and television chats between lovers. You (or she) are trying to be kind, even as you deliver the not-so-great news that things have changed, and not for the better. This kind of change, in most cases, spells the beginning of the end of a beautiful relationship. And these words, as kindly as they are meant to be, suggest that the changes of the past can’t be fixed. For at least one of you, it’s time to go in a different direction.
But does it? I mean, does it always mean you can’t change together and keep that beautiful relationship going? Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re a writer, and the first books you get published are science fiction, and an SF series is born. That’s great, right? But. What if, just after Book Two, you are visited in the night—from whence all great revelations descend!—by the most fantastic plot twist? It’s so good, you sit all the next day, staring at the three-in-the-morning scrap of paper with a couple of scribbled lines that you just know have nudged you up a notch creatively as a writer.
But here’s the kicker. These brief lines demand you change your series from science fiction to fantasy.
That’s not so bad, you tell yourself. SF and Fantasy are first cousins; practically sisters. Lots of readers wouldn’t even discern the difference, you hope. And the alternative, which would be to begin a new series, say goodbye to everything you’ve worked for (including killing ALL of your characters from Books One and Two), well that alternative would be un-putupwithable. And you sink into despair.
Well, welcome to my world.
My first novel: Three Wrongs (If two wrongs don’t make a right, what do three wrongs do?) was written in the classic International suspense-thriller genre. From preamble to challenge, from quest to rise, from ascent to climax the book met the suspense-thriller illustration. I was satisfied, because this was what I had set out to write.
And then, along came Book Two: AMACAT, an acronym for A Mask, A Cask and A Task. I started to write this sequel by employing the same rules. But, you see, I am a Pantser. When writing, I fly by the seat of my pants. I don’t know what my characters are going to say (until they say it); heck, I don’t even know when a new character will drop in and introduce themselves. Honest. So when this charming older couple drop in and decide to play detective, well, the tone of my novel lightened. Just a bit. Just enough to make me worry that I was now writing a cozy. I wasn’t, but at times it felt like it might be.
I finished number two, was pleased that it seemed to be a better product, but I had that niggling worry my series was changing. And I didn’t want it to change. (Did I mention I don’t always have control over my characters?)
In Number Three: Steal It All, I took my lone wolf contract thief, and I found him a) a girl, b) a legitimate employer, and, yikes! c) two police detectives to work with. These are all antithetical to my contract
thief’s essence! For the first time in three novels, my man Donovan was working on the side of the law. My novel was morphing into, of all things, a Police Procedural!
Thriller. Cozy. Police Procedural. I could joke that, if my writing changed any farther, I’d be writing Legal Thrillers! But it is worrisome, because, don’t we have a contract to uphold? I’m not referring to the contract with the publisher, but rather, the one with the reader. When we write a novel, code it to a certain sub-genre and fire off a dust jacket blurb, aren’t we in essence saying to the reader: ‘If you buy this series, I will give you a certain kind of suspense-thriller’? It’ll be like the first one, only eversomuch moreso.
And I worry. Because, I try to write thrillers. And by the time they get through the first half of any of my novels, they will ‘feel’ like they’re reading a thriller. But they have to trust me. Because in Chapter One of AMACAT, they’ll meet this charming couple. And in Chapter Three of Steal It All, they’ll bump into a New Scotland Yard Detective Inspector, and a senior RCMP Detective. And these coppers are not gunning for my man Donovan!
But here’s why I’m not completely worried about hearing the breakup speech from my reader. It’s because I know what a thriller reads like. And my novels read like thrillers. I don’t write formulaic novels, but readers want to be held in suspense as they read. And they want to be thrilled, at some point later in the novel. (Hopefully at several points.) And the reader wants to work through the intricacies of the crime with each chapter. Certainly, they want all of their questions cleared up by the final chapter. So that’s what I do.
I think this argument holds true for romance-erotic romance, historical romance-historical drama, science fiction-fantasy; all of the mash-ups. What is important, however, is to set the rules early in the first novel, and to carry them through the series. If you break the rules to the extent you are no longer abiding by your ‘contract’ with the reader, then you must stop that series and begin another. I know, this will make you shed a tear, but don’t blame yourself. It’s not you; it’s me.
I'm currently working on my fourth novel in the series Donovan: Thief For Hire. It’s called The Body On The Underwater Road.
You can find this blog post on my friend Janie Franz's Blogsite:
Janie Franz, author of The Bowdancer Saga and the Ruins trilogy