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VANISHED makes the Chicago Sun-Times’ Summer Reading List!

In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, reviewer David Montgomery recommends VANISHED for summer pleasure reading: “a perfect combination of action and intelligent suspense, led by a promising new hero.”

Thanks, David!

A Reader Asks…How can writers power up their openings?

“In POWER PLAY and KILLER INSTINCT you had a killer opening that raised not only great story questions but high stakes in a flash-forward moment before returning to a slower paced revealing of the protagonist’s everyday world. These openings also set up the Thriller feel to the book nicely. Any suggestions on how writers can power up their openings, or other areas of their stories to nail that ‘thriller’ feel?”

Here’s the trick of writing a thriller: you need to grab your reader right away — but at the same time, you need to introduce them to a world that feels natural and normal. Because thrillers are about disruption of the ordinary world and our attempt to restore normalcy. So . . . I always recommend starting in the middle of things — as late as you can into a story, where something big is just about to happen. And the most important advice I can give you in this regard is to be stingy with backstory. Don’t load down the introduction of your main character with biography and description Be frugal. Parcel it out. Think of a good action movie, where we meet the hero living his or her life, doing something — and then the inciting incident takes place in the first 10 or 15 minutes. Gradually as the movie (or book) goes on, we get to know the hero much better.

Yet another jacket photo?


Discovered: a long-buried photo of me from my days as a member of the 80’s New Wave synthpop group A Flock of Seagulls. (Thanks to my Twitter friend @juliagoolia). Rawk on.

Joe’s Rock ‘n Roll Fan

Here’s another fan of Joe’s — Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones). This is his home bookshelf. Spot the Joseph Finder novel (hint: it’s paperback and red).

May Writing Tip – Research: A Writer’s Best Friend and A Writer’s Worst Enemy

The text of my May Writing Tips newsletter — if you’d like to subscribe, you can sign up here.

My name is Joe, and I’m a research-aholic.

This should surprise no one who reads my books. In fact, I’ve taken some teasing about the length of the “acknowledgments” sections of my books, because so many people have been so generous about sharing their expertise with me.

I have always considered “Write what you know” one of the most useless pieces of advice a beginning author gets. Write what I know? If I’d started out writing what I knew, I’d have come up with 10 or 12 pages about a kid in upstate New York who wanted to be a cartoonist (I did, actually; see my monthly newsletter for more about this). Granted, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, among others, did very well in turning their life experiences into literature – but I wanted to write thrillers, and my life was not thrilling.

No, for me, writing was all about having my characters do things I could only dream of, whether that was taking the Concorde to Paris, escaping assassins on the streets of Moscow, or wining and dining beautiful women in Boston’s finest restaurants (which I am now able to do, thanks to my wife and daughter, but you know what I mean).

And let’s face it: research is the fun part. Who wouldn’t want to ride along with cops, learn to shoot guns (lots of guns!), and talk to interesting people about the cool things they do? It’s much more fun than sitting alone in front of a blank computer screen, trying to figure out what happens next.

Research has also given me some of my best plot points and material. A weapons expert once showed me how to smuggle a gun through airport security and on to a plane. Believe me, I could not have thought that one up by myself.

But every hour you spend doing the fun stuff of research is time you’re not writing. And I’m here to tell you that research, while fun and often necessary, is addictive and dangerous.

It’s also a great crutch. All novelists feel like impostors at times; it’s only natural to feel unqualified and insecure in what you’re writing about. You don’t really know it – what do we know, we’re writers, right? — so you want to find out as much as you can. But in the age of the Internet, you’re always one hyperlink away from the next website or article, and it can go on ad infinitum. The easiest thing in the world is to put off writing while you find out exactly how many gallons the New York City reservoirs hold, or how long it takes to fly from Washington to Timbuktu, or whether Brazilians drive on the right or the left-hand side of the road.

So stop. Put the story first. Write your story first, and fact-check later. It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate; it just has to be plausible.

John Grisham was 100 pages into his latest book, The Associate, which was set at the Princeton Law School – when he found out that Princeton doesn’t have a law school. It didn’t derail him; he just moved the story to Yale, which does have a law school. The key is that the setting wasn’t the important part, the story was – and he’d already written 100 pages, so he was able to go back and make the necessary changes.

In Hollywood they call this “fixing it in post.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces need to come together just so in order to get a scene right on film. If 99 things are right and one thing is wrong, it’s not worth shooting an entire scene again; they can fix it in post-production, by overdubbing sound or correcting color or editing something out. The key is to keep going, so the production can “make its day,” and stay on schedule.

That’s what John Grisham knows: the key is to keep going. “When I write fiction, it takes a lot to get me out of the seat to check anything,” he said in a recent interview. “I hate to stop writing to go check a fact, to go find a city, to go to a hotel – I’ll just make stuff up.”

And you know what? Readers hate it, too. Nothing is worse than stopping a story to give your readers all the great research you did about how and when some government agency happened to be based in West Virginia instead of in Washington, DC, or why that particular vintage of Burgundy is considered the best, or who manufactures a particular kind of pistol in the United States. Research should be like an iceberg – only a fraction should be visible. (Ten percent of the iceberg, to be exact. I just Googled it.) Or to continue the show-business metaphor, it should be the lights that illuminate the stage, not a spotlight pointed at the audience’s faces.

Oh, but the research demon says: you want facts. Your male readers, particularly, want facts. If you get it wrong, you’ll get emails, and you’ll have to apologize and ask your publishers to correct things in future editions, and you – and they – HATE that.

This is true, actually, especially when it comes to weapons. If I make even a small error about something gun-related, I’ll get at least a dozen emails from aficionados who are sometimes downright outraged about my carelessness. (Which is why I take gun classes … or at least, that’s my excuse.)

It may even be one reason men read fewer novels than women, as Gore Vidal once noted in an essay: “It has been observed that American men do not read novels because they feel guilty when they read books which do not have facts in them. Made-up stories are for women and children; facts are for men. There is something in this…” As a man, this doesn’t make me proud … but Vidal probably has a point here.

But then I defer to that king of all research, James Michener, whose Herculean efforts filled whole bookshelves (Hawaii, Caravans, The Source, Centennial, etc., etc…). Even he admitted that research can only get you so far: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than that writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth … To praise a writer for having done research is like praising a bus driver for knowing how to shift gears; if he can’t perform that function, he has no right to climb into the bus.” Because the story, like the bus, has to go somewhere.

I wrestle with this constantly. I’ve had to set time limits on my research. If questions come up while I’m writing, I might make a call or fire off an email, but I don’t stop writing while I wait for an answer; I keep writing, and fill in details later.

Take the word of a research-aholic: don’t let this happen to you. Don’t overdo the research, because the story is what’s important. Without a story, your pile of facts is worthless.

We can always fix it in post.

My new book jacket photo

What do you think?

A Reader Asks…

“I’m trying to turn a book into a movie and need some guideline on what exactly I have to do.”

It’s a question I am asked often and I wanted to share my experience with other writers.

I wrote PARANOIA, and my agent sold it to producers who will be making the movie. My direct involvement in making the movie will be very limited; I hope they’ll consult me, but my work pretty well ended when I finished the book. If you’re looking to sell a book to Hollywood, you’ll need an agent who specializes in that kind of representation. THE WRITER’S MARKET, available in any library, lists agents who represent book authors in Hollywood; you could also take a look at this list of agents who have relationships with the Writers Guild. No reputable agent will ask for money upfront to represent you or your work.An excellent discussion of writers’ role in the film industry is ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, by William Goldman. If you’re interested in writing a screenplay, I recommend STORY by Robert McKee and WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL by Michael Hauge. Best of luck!

Talking Thrillers with Jonathan Maberry

I was flattered to be the subject of an interview on award-winning author Jonathan Maberry‘s Big, Scary Blog last week. Check it out here.

Introducing … THE COWL

This is the lead article of my May newsletter, which went out to subscribers yesterday. If you’d like to subscribe, sign up here!

Before I wanted to be an author, before I wanted to be a secret agent, before I wanted to be almost anything, I wanted to draw cartoons. I love cartoons, and always have. Visit my office and you’ll see several classics framed on my wall, including a Charles Addams original.

Reality got in the way, as it often does. The only D you’ll see on my college transcript was – yes – an art class. I realized I was better at words than at pictures, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But the dream never completely died, and at last year’s Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), I met a couple of guys from DC Comics. By coincidence, I was working on a subplot in VANISHED involving the main character’s teenaged nephew, Gabe, who was writing and illustrating what he called a “graphic novel” about a superhero based on his uncle, Nick Heller.

So I took the opportunity to talk comics and graphic novels with them, and discovered a world I’d barely imagined. I knew that several major mystery and literary authors were working in the graphic novel arena – Michael Chabon, Brad Meltzer, Gregg Hurwitz, Duane Swierczynski, to name a few – and at Bouchercon I met Brian Azzarello, author of 100 BULLETS and (with Lee Bermejo) THE JOKER.

This fired my imagination; I’m always looking for ways to introduce my works to new audiences, and what better way than a comic book, especially if a comic book were part of my plot? And what if the comic book included a clue to the central mystery of VANISHED, itself?

I took this idea to DC Comics Senior Editor Will Dennis, who was kind enough to encourage me. He helped me find a Spanish artist, Benito Gallego, who could create the images I imagined for Gabe’s fictional superhero, The Cowl – classically heroic images in the tradition of the comics I read as a kid, by artists such as John Buscema and Joe Kubert.

Writing a comic book, however, isn’t like writing a novel. It’s somewhere between writing a screenplay and writing a series of epigrams, and it’s not what I do. I had a story for The Cowl, but didn’t know how to bring it to life.

Brian Azzarello to the rescue. I asked if he’d be willing to take over The Cowl’s story, and he agreed – and came up with a script even better than I’d imagined, about the origins of The Cowl in a post-Apocalyptic Washington, DC.

The Cowl – the secret identity of international security consultant Nick Heller – takes to the streets of Washington, DC to fight the nefarious Dr. Cash, a scientist who rules with an iron hand and an endless supply of a mind-altering chemical that enslaves the city’s young men.

The idea of a comic book based on the creation of a fictional character is a little complicated, and putting it all together was complicated as well – me in Boston, Benito in Spain, Azz in Chicago. But the first copies came off the press a couple of weeks ago, and I’m delighted with the result. Over the next several months I’ll be giving copies away, and my publisher, St. Martin’s, will make copies available to booksellers along with advance reading copies of VANISHED.

It’s been a great adventure, and I’m grateful to Brian and Benito for letting me achieve my childhood dream, with a little help from my friends.


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