The Scary Business of Writing Suspense

by Lisa Gardner

February 2018

Twenty years ago, I decided to join the big leagues; I was going to quit my day job and write a breakout suspense novel that would bend all the rules, shock and awe my readers, and just possibly earn me more than ten-cent Ramen noodles for dinner. In the good news department, I was already a published author. I’d written half a dozen romantic suspense novels for Silhouette, genre books that I loved to write, but being genre, had a limited income stream. As in, my day job still paid the bills. But now I wanted more. I wanted to write, write, write. Every day, all the time. Maybe even in a real office, instead of at the foot of my bed.

The bestseller lists were already filled with former genre authors who’d made the leap. Sandra Brown, Nora Roberts, Tami Hoag, Iris Johansen, Tess Gerritsen. All romance novelists now making huge waves in suspense. I figured I could do exactly the same. I’d give myself one year to write a breakout thriller, and just like that, become an overnight success.

Except what is breakout suspense? More sex, I figured. More violence. How hard could it be? So I sat down. I drafted like a madwoman and you know what? I produced one really long, murderous, lustful piece of garbage.

Writing is uncomfortable. There’s no magic box that sits on your desk and says, “This scene is perfect or this character is exactly right.” I thought that having already published would’ve helped me reach this next level in my writing career. I was wrong. Bigger, my editor kept urging me. Think bigger story, bigger conflict, bigger thrills and bigger chills.

Frankly, I stewed, fretted and ate a lot of brownies. Soon, I was bigger, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what my editor meant.

It occurred to me that I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and create a whole new kind of story. No more linear plot of good guys chasing bad guys. Instead, I crafted an elaborate game of cat and mouse where I couldn’t even see what would happen next. Which yes, led to a lot of scary writing days where I stared at the blank page and wondered what I’d done or where I was going next.

I also had to revisit my characters. No more just considering the hero and heroine. Now, I gave everyone, even the villain, a value system. My cops were smart, but my villain clever. My heroine was tough, but the villain devious. The hero evolved, matured, become the person I always knew he could be, which led to the larger conflict I’d been looking for. Did I always know what I was doing? No. Did I throw away a lot of pages? Absolutely. But that process is what made my characters so smart—because I got to learn from the stupid scenes.

Finally, I had to get over myself. No more playing it safe. If I was to create authentic, gritty, real-life suspense, I had to do more homework. So I picked up the phone and cold called professionals. Yep police officers, FBI agents, even maximum-security prison guards. All of them thought talking to a so-called suspense writer was a little strange, but I’m a member of the public and they do value public relations, so they did their best to answer my questions. And thanks to those very patient experts, I finally came up with the dramatic, terrifying end-of-book climax my editor had been looking for.

It didn’t take me a year. More like three. But the end result was The Perfect Husband, my very first suspense novel which debuted just two slots shy of the New York Times list. I like to think it’s because the villain of the novel, Jim Beckett, is still feared by anyone who opens the pages. But maybe it’s because I finally faced down my own fears as a writer.

Success, I have learned, isn’t sitting at the computer and magically knowing what to do. Instead, it’s learning to be comfortable with your discomfort. It’s finding your way, word by word, through the dark maze of a half-baked book idea, which feels exciting and thrilling at the time, if only you knew how it would end.

I’ve now written twenty internationally bestselling suspense novels. I’m published in thirty languages. I’ve hit #1 on the New York Times list. I’ve won the International Thriller Writers award for Best Thriller of the Year (The Neighbor). I still never know what I’m writing. I still wake up each morning to the terror of the blank page. In the beginning, I thought it would pass; maybe for some authors it does. For me, the process has remained the same.

I started my latest thriller, Look For Me, with the kernel of an idea. An entire family is brutally murdered, their teenage daughter gone. Is she another victim? Or is she the killer? I cold-called professionals, learning about Amber Alerts, subway cameras, and yes, you would definitely track the family’s missing dogs. I developed some characters I liked, I fought with them till I liked them even better. I learned some sad truths from a CASA advocate about real life foster care, and I wove them into my plot to give it the heart it needed. I wrote brilliant scenes. I wrote awful scenes. I took two steps forward and sometimes twelve steps backwards again.

And once again, I produced a novel. Not easily. Certainly not comfortably. But hopefully successfully enough that Look For Me will make you stay up way too late flipping pages, and maybe even haunt you a little even after you’ve reached the end.

Twenty years later, I’ve learned to accept the challenge that is a writer’s life. Step outside your comfort zone, ride the ride, and relish the thrill of finally reaching The End.

For all the writers out there, here’s to you, your journey and your challenge. Welcome to the scary business of writing suspense.

Lisa GardnerComment