I love a bit of murder at night, when I’m tucked under my cozy quilt with a cup of tea by my side and my dog sprawled across my feet. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t my husband’s inability to remember to turn out his fluorescent closet light (which shines, annoyingly, right into my eyes as I sit in bed reading) that prompts this desire for homicide within me.
No, I’m talking about the kinds of books I love to read: Thrillers.
There’s an old axiom: write what you know. And another, often contradictory one: write what you love to read.
So in theory, I should be bumping people off and then creating books about it from my prison cell.
But I’m ignoring both of those rules, because I think one of the best things I can do for my own novels is to simply study the structure of a good thriller.
I write women’s commercial fiction and although each of my books is a stand-alone with fresh characters and plots, they are all linked, because they examine different facets of the important relationships in women’s lives. My first book was about sisters, my second about a marriage, and my third, which will be out in April, is about female friendships.
Sounds so organized and well-thought out, doesn’t it? I’m glad I have you fooled. Because when I turned in the very first draft of my first novel to my agent, she telephoned me. And my fast-talking, New York-bred agent seemed, for the first time in her life, at a loss for words. “Um… I mean, I guess I could send it out as a character-based book,” she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.
“It needs more plot?” I asked, stating the screamingly obvious.
“Yeah,” she said. I thought it was charitable of her not to say, “More? How about just aiming for some?”
That phone call made me realize something: I was frightened of plot. I’m a middle child – a classic people-pleaser. I hate arguments and fights and drama. And so I’d just kind of … left them out of my book.
I knew my agent was right, so I studied a number of books on plotting techniques – my favorites are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas – and then I began reading thrillers. I haven’t put them down since.
Thrillers have taught me so much about things like micro-tension and foreshadowing and putting your characters into peril, then not giving them a chance to catch their breath before tossing them into a whole new kind of mess. These books, with their jagged-lettered titles and ominously slashed covers, serve as a kind of blueprint for me, laying out techniques that I can adapt into my own novels.
Don’t get me wrong – I love reading women’s fiction, too. And I’m a huge new fan of YA. Memoirs are neat, too.
But the books that have become my equivalent of a little black dress are thrillers.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a fluorescent bulb to unscrew out of my husband’s closet.
Sarah Pekkanen is the internationally-bestselling author of Skipping a Beat, The Opposite of Me, and the upcoming These Girls. Please visit her website at www.sarahpekkanen.com