Monday, April 14, 2008

Crafting A Seamless Romantic Suspense Thriller

By E. J. RandAs most writers, E. J. Rand has spent a lifetime working in fields other than fiction writing. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, his work experience was in upper management at both a management consulting firm and in public relations. Rand writes mystery thrillers; his debut novel, SAY GOODBYE, won the Deadly Ink Press’ David G. Sasher, Sr. Best Unpublished Thriller Novel Award.

At you'll find information and sample text from SAY GOODBYE, from the next book in his Reluctant Sleuth Mystery series, PERFECT COVER which is due from Deadly Ink Press in December, and from the third novel in the series, HIGHER CALLING. Rand is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. Rand lives with his wife in New Jersey.

When retirement offered time, I took up writing as I'd always intended. What did I want to write? First, I read mystery books like I was speed dating. There were classes, writers' conferences, and a tidal wave of Internet advice—authors are delighted to tell you how-to. So many of us want to write that an audience is guaranteed.

What I did finally write came as much of a surprise as my winning Deadly Ink Press' award and selling my first novel, SAY GOODBYE. The second in my Reluctant Sleuth Mystery series, PERFECT COVER, is slated for December 2008 publication. I've completed a third novel in the series and I'm writing a fourth, so newbie that I am, now I too can officially address how-to.

Before gluing fingers to keyboard, the "What did I want to write?" question yielded this: If the intent is to have readers buy it, then it needs to be targeted to those who read, and that means adults. So I opted to write about a mature guy—no super hero—who'd lost his wife. Much is made of a story's "inciting incident," the event that immediately draws in the reader. Well, authors have them, too. Here is mine: a snowy morning, me out in a robe bringing in the newspaper when a neighbor drives by on his way to work, and waves—I might have frozen solid from the idea in my head. He could be an auditor who in a one-page prologue gets killed on the way to work.

That started my fingers. I intended to write a murder mystery, but also found a deep love story pouring out. We find my dysfunctional hero on the morning he's roped into becoming an amateur sleuth and meets his second chance at love. Right from the get-go, the two threads churned in my head. My Gary and Becca are each grappling with two forms of conflict: the mystery, and each other. What's a writer to do?

I read the rules for romance, for mystery, and for romantic suspense novels. Top-level authors admit these are guidelines—anything goes that works. What I've found: grafting genres must start right from a story's DNA. In story design, plotting, creating characters, crafting emotions and actions—the romance and murder must be inseparable. Every kiss moves the mystery; the villain's thrusts bond the lovers. Mortal danger makes the earth move. Crises cause epiphanies.

At one panel I attended, when the subject of "plotting" arose, six authors of note were asked what prep work they did before starting to write. The answers ranged from "thirty pages of dense notes" to "the-characters-talk-to-me-and-my-fingers-move." Literally. That's telling. I relaxed, and began to wake at night with scenes rolling like video in my head. So, no "rules"—I'd rather offer examples of what worked for me, and might for you.

I had my main characters meet early, and in a way that ties each to a piece of the mystery. Gary is asked to look into his friend's death by the widow and Becca is witness to the car crash that killed the man. That allows the romance and suspense to unfold together.

Romantic suspense calls for a short timeline as emotions and events build into increasing waves of danger. In SAY GOODBYE, I crafted two characters that have never met but are predisposed to one another. She "zaps" him, coming from being burned by men; he understands, coming from loss. This, plus mortal danger causing them to lean on one another, allows swift bonding. Without the mortal danger, that's what happened between my wife and I, and I'm grateful. Mystery-reader critics may question the pace, but most, especially romance readers, will get it.

When Gary and Becca first meet, reflective of the baggage grown-ups can bring to new relationships, he's wearing a wedding band to preserve memories, and she's wearing one as a defense against men. She's feisty—a good thing for the love interest in romantic suspense (think Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly, two charmers who could cut you dead with a look or word)—and says "no" to sex before she's asked: Sexual tension before even innuendo. He's still communing with his late wife. How to turn this into plot fodder? How about the killer, uneasy at finding them together, decides to warn him off by attacking her.

So the very fact of their relationship causes escalation in the mystery. It took a lot to get them to a first kiss—but that's what gets us into the killer's head. The reader, offered hope for the romance, is yanked back. At the same time, because the killer saw their kiss, he knows they may be together for reasons not dangerous to him, and so—for the moment—his intent is warning, not murder. That comes later. The killer can't know his action will infuriate Gary and cause a short war that powers the plot. Just look what a kiss can do.

In every good work of fiction, there's a basic premise that cuts to the heart of the story. You'll need to know your own premise if you hope to interest a literary agent. In SAY GOODBYE, it's "Can He Say Goodbye Again?" Falling for Becca allows Gary to say goodbye to his late wife, and when the killer comes for him but takes her, he may have to. The story builds to that.

I've read that the love scene, the melding of these two people who meet so awkwardly and tiptoe through such difficulty, should be the final ending of the story. Nonsense. The sex chapter that Gary and Becca dictated to me—they held hands in my office while I wrote it—comes on page 195 of a 250-page book. Consummating their love for one another, moving into the bonding emotions beyond sex, deepens Gary's horror—and the reader's—when she's taken. Getting into other heads in the story is useful—the reader knows the villain's evil intent. He's just the man to do it, too.

With that single act, the twined threads of "will they fall for one another" (the romance), and "can he get to the bottom of his friend's death" (the mystery), warp into—Can They Stay Alive. Romantic Suspense is morphed into a Thriller. We've come to know these people, we've gloried in their finding one another—and now we discover their time together was simply a "breather," and the stakes have been reset impossibly high.

It's the "black point," and it forces Gary to make a choice. Can he say goodbye? If not, how far is he willing to go? This leads to what seems an ending—until it twists into another black hole. After all this, no way could I disappoint the reader, although my heroes, stir-fried in risk, never seem to get away clean. They wind up alone, and fresh from being saved, feisty Becca tells him that in future, they'll take care of each other.

She's right. Miss Marple and Poirot stay essentially the same, book after book, but I'm married and know better. People evolve. In SAY GOODBYE, Gary and Becca's uncomfortable first meetings turn into understanding, affection, passion—and by novel three, she's become not only the food police, but also a full partner. Just like real life.


Kim Smith said...

Thanks for posting all this delicious information. Your stuff is now on my can't wait to read list :)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Mr. Rand - I've just ordered Say Goodbye. Your premise intrigued me, and I must say it's probably not a surprise. In Double Forte', the founding book of the LeGarde Mysteries, Gus LeGarde has difficulty saying goodbye to his first love, Elsbeth, who died four years before the story opens. And it's rather awkward and wonderful when he meets Camille, his unexpected new love.

I'm looking forward to getting to know Gary and Becca. And wish you well in your series!

Marta Stephens said...

Ed, thanks so much for posting this article. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about your book and having a chance to chat with you. Best of luck with SAY GOODBYE!