Being first with the most for too long makes you old hat

A relevant and rather pointed pair of question were posted by Mrs B about the forthcoming 4th edition of WRITING A THRILLER. Mrs B demands to know: “Why does a successful textbook for writers need to be rewritten? Surely good writing is a timeless art.”

That’s a good point. Much that is in WRITING A THRILLER is timeless, applies to every novel and every creative profession. But the process of good writing is not “timeless”. It changes over time. And WRITING A THRILLER was the agent of that change in the last quarter of the 20th century. But now we’re in the 21st century…

I can give you an example, Mrs B. You go on to say, “I never saw the need for the second and third editions, which catered to ever more advanced writers. The first edition was a perfect eye-opener, and cheaper too because it was thinner.” We’re running the risk of conflating several matters here, so I’ll leave the desire of publishers for ever thicker editions for later. The phrase we want to focus on is “a perfect eye-opener.” From the mouths of babes… (No, I don’t know anything about Mrs B. I’m not referring to that sort of babe.)

On one of the Amazon sites there is a condescending review of WRITING A THRILLER, saying it is a useful book but there is little in it that the reviewer hasn’t found in other books. I laughed aloud when that review was drawn to my attention; I would bet money that whoever wrote that wasn’t born yet when the first edition of WRITING A THRILLER came out. Certainly, all the “other books” he refers to were written after WRITING A THRILLER.

When WRITING A THRILLER first appeared, it was a radical departure from the textbooks for writers then available. The preface explained why, and named the only other good book — in my opinion —  for writers then available, Writing a Novel by John Braine, author of Room at the Top. Writing a Novel was then out of print; it was eventually reprinted at my repeated suggestion.

Among other things, WRITING A THRILLER

  • Shifted the focus of the thriller from plotting to characterization.
  • Redefined the plot from a creaky mechanical contrivance operated by events to a structure driven by characters through the events they motivate.
  • Became the most quoted book for writers ever through its insistence on professional behavior for writers.

All of this is now commonplace because in the intervening quarter-century so many writers have followed where WRITING A THRILLER led. Your library shelves will demonstrate a big change in thrillers. All those villains, previously so many cardboard cutouts, now have proper motivation. In fact, I’ll probably burn in hell for being the impetus behind so many sympathetic serial killers!

So, Mrs B, a new, fully revised edition of WRITING A THRILLER is required because the first three editions caused a shift in the emphasis between the elements of good writing that now makes it seem a little old hat — because everyone else has caught up to where I stood a quarter-century ago. The new edition’s emphasis will shift to strengthen what has been made into general practice by the earlier editions, and address what is bad (a very great deal) about current practice. It will also have to address a vast new army of writers who unless they receive help will be empowered by Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (new name of DTP) and Smashwords to publish before they are ready.

New challenges for a new century.

2 thoughts on “Being first with the most for too long makes you old hat”

  1. I must admit that I’m quite staggered by that Amazon review you refer to, Andre. Way back in the mid 1980s I came across Writing a Thriller at a time when I was reading any writing manual I could find (and yes, the John Braine one, albeit wonderfully cranky, is one of my other favourites). I waded through an awful lot of rubbish: flimsy guides, often quite blatantly ripped off from other guides.

    Writing a Thriller was very different, and it’s one of the few that has stuck with me for more than two decades. The emphasis on character made a big impact on me. Only last week I was teaching a masters level novel-writing class and making the point that everything comes from character, using WaT as an illustration: a book on thriller-writing that concentrated on characterisation. WaT is one of a very few books I use on that course (for the rest, I ask the students to build a recommended reading list). It may seem odd, at first glance, to have a thriller-writing guide as one of a handful of books used on a general novel-writing course, but I always argue that any good novel should thrill, should hook the reader, make them care about the characters, make it as hard as possible for them to put it down. So for me WaT is not “just” a guide to writing thrillers: it’s one of the best guides I’ve found to writing novels per se, in any genre.

    It’s lovely after all these years to get the chance to say thank you!

  2. What a superb insight into the mind of a teacher and a writer you give us, Keith. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have been of service to you, to continue to be of service to your students. It’s a real glow of satisfaction.

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