One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Ernest Hemingway: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” I love this because it reveals that even the very best writers needed to learn the craft of writing. Maybe that seems obvious, but hang on for a second. Think about your favorite novel. It’s a masterpiece, isn’t it? All of your favorite novels are. These are the novels that inspired you to want to write fiction in the first place! From the brilliance of story, execution, and characterizations, to the superb use of language and dialogue, these novels are untouchable, sitting high on mountain tops in your mind. We can try but, honestly, is any of our own writing ever going to get anywhere close to that? The authors of those novels were clearly born with some otherworldly talent we have no hope in hell of—
You see? It’s easy to put certain authors on pedestals, easy to think they were “born with it” while we weren’t.
That’s why I like the Hemingway quote. Nobody’s born knowing how to knock out a stellar book. Everybody has to learn the craft of writing. It’s the only way up the mountain.
When I set out to write my first novel, Parent Teacher Association, I knew one thing with certainty. Before I had a story, or characters, or even a clue what to write about, I knew that my novel would be in the thriller/suspense genre. All of my favorite books and movies belong to that genre, so it was a no brainer for my future story. Anyway, with all of the books and movies I’d ingested, I knew the genre inside-out, right?
A gripping, well-written thriller grabs you, straps you down, then barrels you through a winding roller coaster. As an audience member, or reader, you’re too exhilarated to analyze the various elements that make the ride kick ass.
It’s a fact I realized once I tried to write a thriller of my own. Amazing how all the “stuff” of thrillers went over my head as a consumer of them. With the Ernest Hemingway quote as encouragement, I knew I needed to learn the craft of the “thriller experience” if this novel was going to work.
I went to CraftFest with an open mind. I took pages of notes and learned a ton from a slew of bestselling authors who generously laid out all the steps and secrets for writing a winning book.
At the beginning, I think I was looking for a formula, some framework that might make this daunting task a little easier. While a thriller can be considered somewhat “processed,” it’s much more than a formula. Sure, certain elements that need to be worked in. For instance, showing is way more important than telling. Readers want to experience the highs and lows along with the characters in real time. And those highs and lows better be intense; you can’t be afraid to put your characters through the wringer. There needs to be conflict on every page. Oh, and don’t forget to keep those sentences nice and short. Not only does it keep the pace hurdling forward, but it packs a more emotional punch.
This is some of the “stuff” of thrillers. Without it, you’d be writing a different kind of book. ThrillerFest is the conference where you can learn all of that, and so much more.
As I read books in the genre with a more analytical eye, I started identifying these markers. But I also noticed that their inclusion didn’t automatically guarantee a breathtaking book. A truly great thriller transcends formula.
Each author brings unique elements and ingredients to their work. You see it in the small details, the creative choices, the gut instincts of imagination.
Can all that “extra stuff” be learned too? Is it simply craft, or something more? I’m not sure. I’d like to think it can be learned by doing a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and being open to information. With effort, any skill can be improved upon. It’s easy to put certain authors on pedestals, but our admiration shouldn’t dampen our own attempts.
“Let them think you were born with it,” Hemingway tells us from the mountain top. He’s revealing a big secret and I think it’s best to listen.